The New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons are typically fierce rivals on the field, but Monday night the teams came together for a show of unity amid the ongoing national conversation about racism, protests and sports.
The players and coaches for the two teams came to the center of the field and joined hands to form a unity circle following the national anthem.
Saints coach Sean Payton contacted Falcons coach Dan Quinn about the idea, though the two ultimately let their quarterbacks decide how their teams would make a demonstration of unity while also standing in honor of the national anthem, ESPN reported.
“Obviously, everybody knows what’s been going on throughout this entire year and for a long time. And people think things need to change,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan told ESPN. “We all felt like the best way to do it was everybody do it together. And we wanted to send a message loud and clear that unity is probably the best way to make a change, and I thought that came across loud and clear tonight.”
The pre-game demonstration followed a week of intense protests that were sparked by the fatal police shootings of black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
As a growing number of athletes have publicly supported movements like Black Lives Matter over the past few years, the most visible protest in the NFL started in late August when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting or kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick explained his actions were a stand against the systemic oppression of people of color that commonly takes the form of racism and police brutality.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in August.
Controversy has raged over Kaepernick’s words and actions.
Professional and amateur athletes alike ― including U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and a high school volleyball team in the Dallas area ― have refused to stand for the anthem.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was also critical of Kaepernick’s protest, saying he “wholeheartedly” disagreed with the manner of it, and was bothered by it because he views the American flag as “sacred.”
Following the Saints’ loss to the Falcons on Monday, Brees said he felt the pre-game circle was “an appropriate way” to show unity.
“[It was] the way we would like to give attention ― after the national anthem ― in a way that shows we’re all in this together,” Brees told ESPN.