The day after President Donald Trump told NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality, the Bengals were like many teams which suddenly had an important choice to make.
And their decision included the input of owner Mike Brown, who players say insisted they not kneel, to the point of pleading them not to for fear of alienating customers.
Elise Jesse of WLWT talked to a number of former Bengals, some who were willing to be named and some who weren’t, who told the story of the players-only meeting in Cincinnati, and a follow-up meeting at the team hotel in Green Bay the night before the game.
“I always said I was not going to talk about that until I was done playing officially, but I really don’t care,” former safety George Iloka said. “A lot of people, myself in particular, wanted to kneel. It was a big issue and that was weighing heavily on my heart, it was weighing heavy on my mind, and obviously it was weighing heavy on a lot of people’s hearts and minds across the NFL, and across the nation particularly with African Americans. It wasn’t just me that felt some kind away about that.”
Iloka said after the player meeting, the Bengals were split on what to do, and he felt like he didn’t have the support of white teammates.
“The meeting left pretty much just like, the African American players feeling like we want to kneel, and then it was the white players telling us, ‘You guys don’t need to do that.’ It’s almost like saying ‘Go be oppressed somewhere else and keep it out of my sight.’ That sort of thing. So, you know it was like, I understand that you don’t get how we feel and we are not asking you to join us, but just stop telling us not to.”
That led to the unusual instance of the owner joining a team meeting the night before the game. One player said Brown told the players not to kneel because he feared fan backlash, and another said he “really begged.”
Iloka said the remarks were brief, and that Brown tried to leave the room quickly, before he stood up to speak.
“My heart was beating because he’s the owner, and you already saw what happened to [Colin] Kaepernick,” Iloka said. “I said, ‘but Mike, . . .’ and he had to turn back around and I just started telling him how I felt and why this is important to us and what it means to us and why we feel like we want to kneel, and he wasn’t trying to hear it.”
The Bengals responded to the report with a written statement: “Mr. Brown met with all players while the team was in Green Bay. A positive and open discussion ensued. Mr. Brown shared with players his preference, but said he was not directing them what to do.”
The Bengals ultimately did not kneel that week, opting to stand side by side with arms linked during the anthem. Whether that remains the case this year remains to be seen, but the issue has taken on a new momentum around the league, a momentum which might cause owners such as Brown to reconsider previous stances.