Sports fans argue about whose team is better. Political parties debate their differences. And social issues have long been disputed from people whose views fall on opposing sides.
These are issues that have long divided people and last weekend they all collided. In the days following President Donald Trump’s call for team owners to “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem and for fans to begin boycotting games if protests continued, people began speaking out. Athletes demonstrated by kneeling in the same way that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did last year to call attention to police brutality, linking arms and in some cases staying in the locker room during the anthem. In some cases, criticism followed. In others, there was support.
In an effort to capture those voices, Courant reporters reached out to local and national sports figures, veterans, business owners, fans, and others. There are those who find it disrespectful to the American flag to kneel, some who encourage acts of protest and others who refuse to watch another NFL game this season.
Paul Vaccari, U.S. Army veteran
A veteran of Vietnam and and retired Winsted police officer, Paul Vaccari said the topic of kneeling NFL players dominated discussion this week among his friends.
“I won’t watch another football game this year,” said Vaccari, who served in the U.S. Army. “I’m that disgusted.”
“For me,” he continued, “standing for the American flag has nothing to do with Black Lives Matter or slavery or any other issue. It represents our country, what our whole country stands for. All the people who died for this country – it’s insane that they would disrespect this nation’s symbol.”
Diane Callis, Bulkeley High athletic director
A group of Bulkeley football players wanted to take a knee during the national anthem before a game last year, similar to Kaepernick, to protest police brutality and racial injustice.
“We called the boys in and asked them what was their reasoning,” Bulkeley athletic director Diane Callis said. “They do have a right to freedom of speech and we can’t deny that but we were concerned about their reasoning. All of them spoke eloquently about their beliefs.
“My principal said then you have to walk the walk. You’re not just taking the knee because you want to be in the newspaper or on TV. You’re doing your homework, you’re in class on a team, you lead by example. You show people I’m against what’s going on, but I’m responsible and a respectable young person who wants to do something with their life.”
At the football game, the players faced the flag and knelt.
“The next game, every single kid was back up standing,” Callis said. “We gave them a chance to have a way to peacefully protest.”
Ted Mancini, West Hartford Youth Football League president
“These people, they say they’re protesting how blacks are treated in the United States by the cops,” said Ted Mancini, the president of the West Hartford Youth Football League. “And they’re doing it during the national anthem, so really what they’re doing is disrespecting the people that died protecting their freedoms, and they’re also disrespecting the cops.”
Mancini said he has refused to watch an NFL game since Kaepernick began taking a knee.
“All these people who are complaining – all the people on the left, the snowflakes, the media, who are saying they have the right to do this – that’s fine,” he said. “They do have the right to do this, just like everybody else has the right to complain they’re doing that. Just like the president has the right to stay that they should be fired. They should be fired.”
Seeing their idols kneel for the anthem on the sport’s biggest stage sets a terrible example for his young players, Mancini said. “They see what’s happening on TV and they mimic it, and they have no idea as to why they’re doing it,” he said. “It’s football. It’s not a place for you to tell everyone your personal opinions. You have every right to do that anywhere else, on any other stage. That’s not what we’re watching you for, and that’s not what you’re paid to do.”
Ray Allen, former NBA player and UConn alum
As an American citizen through and through, born and raised by a military man dad served 20 plus years in the armed forces, I love this country. There are some truths to what it means to be black in the United States. I wish people would understand. I support the NFL players kneeling.
We’ve seen countless young black men get shot throughout America. We now have to tell our young black men, our children do not resist, put your hands in the air - all these things white men don’t have to tell their white sons.
Another thing, as an athlete, any time I say anything on social media people come on my wall and say ‘stick to basketball, stay out of politics, you’re just an athlete, what do you know about politics?’ That is such a huge slap in the face. The amount of money I’ve paid in taxes [millions] in my life is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing. It’s one of the reasons I think I have a right to speak my mind.
I have a foundation. We rebuild and renovate computers and do countless other things in Hartford, in Boston and Miami. This isn’t the United States of Ray here. This is about me finding out how I can improve the world that I live in. The world has given me so much. So as an athlete I care about so many different things.
If I voice my opinion on something that the person living in the White House says, it’s not me being political, it’s me being a citizen of the United States of America who has concerns and cares about the people around me. It’s important for me to step up and make sure that we hold that person accountable and the people we elect to be in office. I have that right but because I play basketball I can’t have an opinion about what’s going on in government because I’m not supposed to be political.
It is a slap in the face to every athlete in any sport. You can’t silence a person who really knows or understands what’s going on in the world and really does care. We do what we can to help our communities and help our cities. The minute we say something about what’s going on in the White House, all of a sudden we’re being political. They’ll say ‘I don’t want to follow you anymore on social media because you’re being political, you need to stick to basketball,’ yet the person living in the White House is a reality TV star.
Nobody’s perfect but when you run the country you have an obligation. You are a role model so you have to make sure you say and do the right things. And then you have to get passed agendas, laws for everybody not just you and the people around.
Jim Calhoun, former UConn men’s basketball coach
Jim Calhoun’s coaching career stretches back to another era of protests, the protests over the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
A high school coach from 1968-71, he took over at Northeastern in Boston in 1972, a turbulent time in that city. Calhoun, 75, last coached UConn in 2012, but has been hired as a consultant at the University of St. Joseph, where he will help launch a new men’s basketball program.
“It’s such a difficult time,” he said, “and nothing happens in a vacuum. It used to be we could compete in a bubble and someone makes a statement, nobody notices. Now, everybody notices...
If a player wanted to protest, I’d have to know his reasons. If he could give me logical reasons, I think you have to let players express themselves. That’s who we are as a country right now and at these times, you make those kinds of expressions.
There is something amiss right now, something dividing our country and I can see it everywhere.”
Dave Williams, U.S. Marine Corps veteran
Dave Williams, 37, is a Connecticut municipal police officer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War. Williams did two tours in Iraq: in 2003 and 2004-05.
“It’s definitely a sign of complete disrespect,” he said of the national anthem kneeling. “And it’s not just about the living; it’s also for the brothers and sisters that we lost.”
Williams said he is a football fan, “but I don’t intend to waste any money or time with the NFL while this is going on.”
Dillon Thomas, Yard Goats outfielder
“For something like that to come from the president of the United States. … I didn’t agree with the words that he chose to use,” said Dillon Thomas, who has spent parts of two seasons playing outfield for the Yard Goats. “It’s one thing not to agree with someone’s point of view, but his choice of language in addressing those guys [NFL players], saying he thought they should be fired was a little harsh.”
So Thomas said if he were among the fraternity of NFL players last weekend he would have had no problem taking a knee.
“Yes definitely, I would have taken a knee,” Thomas said. “A lot of people are interpreting that as a form of disrespect for the anthem, America and our troops. But that’s not what it really is about at all. It’s just a point of protest to bring attention to some of the other things that are going on.
“The biggest challenge we have is to have everyone understand what is happening because not everyone comes from the same walk of life. … If people just took the time to try and understand a little bit more and not jump to conclusions about intent, to understand that just because something might not be happening to them that it isn’t happening at all, then things would progress a little more.”
Until Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the playing of the anthem last weekend, no Major League Baseball player had taken a public stand resembling those that have become commonplace in the NBA and WNBA.
“I’m not really surprised that MLB players haven’t really [followed the example],” Thomas said. “Baseball is a different culture, it’s seen as America’s pastime. I think the sport is looked upon differently.
“To me, what Maxwell did was even more putting yourself out there than Colin Kaepernick because of the sport that he plays. … I do believe that one of the responsibilities of being a professional athlete is to have the willingness to make your voice heard. At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, you are obligated, if you feel strongly enough about it, to speak out.”
Scott Capano, Norwich business owner
The owner of Harp & Dragon in Norwich, Scott Capano says his pub will no longer air NFL games and he plans to end all football-themed specials.
“I couldn’t be more against police brutality; it’s disgusting,” Capano said. “However, I also think being disrespectful to our flag and our national anthem is disgusting.
“If they had another form of protest, I would absolutely support it.”
He called his broadcast blackout “strictly a business decision.” And, so far, it hasn’t affected his revenue “in the slightest,” garnering more positive than negative reactions from longtime customers.
“This is strictly a personal belief that our flag shouldn’t be used in a protest,” Capano said. “They have a right to protest, as do we.”
Rob Fleeting, Windsor High football coach
I haven’t talked to any of the players about it. Everybody has their own opinion about however they view things but people should have a right to protest the way they feel is appropriate.
I’m not sure where my feelings are at the moment on kneeling. Were the players taking a knee because of their hatred for the president or were they taking a knee because they support Colin Kaepernick? I think everybody has the right to protest the way they feel is appropriate. I feel good that they’re coming together to support something they feel is right, trying to come together to correct injustice in society. One of the great things in our society was the March on Washington. When people come together to make change in the world I always think that is a great thing to be a part of and to witness. However I really don’t know how to look at it because my mom is a veteran and I know a few people who are veterans who really love the American flag. And I think whenever you do something you do have to take into consideration how it affects the people you love and also other people who really try to support everything you support and try to make a decision from there.
Andy Raimondi, Hartford resident
As he watched the Southington Blue Knights romp to a 49-13 drubbing of Conard High School Thursday night, Andy Raimondi said players who knelt for the anthem “should be ashamed of themselves.”
“What are they trying to prove?” Raimondi, 84, asked. “They’re making tons of money. They’re in a country where they can earn money doing the thing they love to do. Get the hell out of here.”
With Trump calling for fans to boycott the NFL, Raimondi said he might stop watching his beloved Giants.
“I love the Giants, but Jesus, I just might do that,” he said. “When I see those guys kneel, I’d like to get over there and kick them.”
Amber Cox, Connecticut Sun vice president
“I believe professional athletes have the right to speak out on topics they are passionate about, but not necessarily a responsibility to do so,” said Amber Cox, the vice president of the Connecticut Sun. “Every individual has to do what is in her heart and in a way she is comfortable. Certainly though, those who do choose to speak up have a unique platform to amplify their beliefs, either via traditional media or on social media channels.”
The Connecticut Sun fell short of the WNBA finals. But had they made it, Game 1 was also last Sunday and the players would be in the position to demonstrate if they wanted. Before that game, the Minnesota Lynx took the floor and locked arms during the national anthem while the Lose Angeles Sparks remained in the locker room.
Whatever the Sun might have decided to do would have been OK with Cox. Long before NFL players took the forefront in social activism, WNBA players were doing their part.
“These are really smart women who come from diverse backgrounds,” Cox said. “It’s a sisterhood. They have opinions about what is going on in the world. I think the league office, teams and the players have been out in front of making sure there is dialogue about topics outside of basketball and that’s been happening for over a year now. You saw that at the end of this season with players and teams linking arms as a show of unity. Our players understand that the message is stronger collectively and again, I think the league and players have done a great job coordinating those efforts.”
Kevin Ollie, UConn men’s basketball coach
Kevin Ollie came to UConn in 1991, in part to escape the violence of his neighborhood, South Central Los Angeles. A year later, he watched from his dorm as violence, the riots following the Rodney King verdict enveloped the streets on which he grew up.
Now UConn’s head coach, he has strong feelings about the United States military. He won his first game on an air base in Germany, and he recently arranged for his team to train a day with the UConn ROTC. During his 13-year NBA career, Ollie played with LeBron James, who recently has been voicing his opinions on protests and President Trump on Twitter.
No UConn player has protested during the national anthem and none, Ollie says, has expressed interest in doing so. He does encourage conversation about current issues.
“I just wish we can be concerned about other issues, like Puerto Rico and things like that. But at the end of the day, there are social injustices out there and the conversations need to be had. I think Kaepernick started the conversation with him protesting, him kneeling, but in my mind we have to have conversation. It’s an uncomfortable subject and we can’t sweep it under the rug.
I think [conversation] is what we’re doing more of, and there needs to be more. Hopefully that dialogue continues, and social injustice will be done with, police brutality will be done with and we can go on as a great nation.
But at the end of the day, our military has been doing a great job, providing us with all the freedoms that we have on this earth and I would never protest against our military.”
Tony Reno, Yale football coach
My job as football coach here at Yale and my job, in my opinion, at the greatest academic institution in the world, which I feel Yale is, is to develop young men on the field, off the field, as leaders and help them grow in their lives. Part of that is the camaraderie that comes within the game of football where you have a team that is from all different areas of the country, from international areas, all different backgrounds and races. When you look at us, none of that matters because we’re all one team and everyone embraces the differences of each other. Everyone looks at where people came from and their beliefs and uses those pieces to make us a better football team and a better family. One of the hardest things for me as a parent, my wife and I raise our kids in that same manner. I wish the rest of the country and the world would look at how sports does things, how a football team relates to each other. I think the whole world would be a better place. My dad was Vietnam War vet. I love this country. I believe we live in the greatest country in the world. One of the things that make it so great is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I support anyone’s right to express themselves in the manner they choose to and we support our players. If our players so choose to express themselves that way [kneeling], we support them.
Ed Lavoie, East Hartford boys’ basketball coach
It’s a tough one. Everyone has their own freedom of speech, has the right to express themselves and obviously, professionals — it’s their way of being able to; they’re on TV. They’re able to be seen, to voice their opinion and be active socially and try to make some changes. I think that’s what guys are trying to do and they’re getting support from owners at the NFL level now and that’s their take on things.
As a high school coach I’ve been thinking about it. You want to support people’s ideas. We don’t have the same avenue as professionals. We’re not on TV, but we want to make it more of a team unity thing than an individual because high school sports should be more about that team than anything else but I’ve talked about it with one of my assistant coaches, one of my parents I’ve talked to, coming from different backgrounds where we come from just having open conversations. We don’t put our team together until December but it is something we will discuss and try to come with a unified agreement answer, work together, support each other, show unity and do it in the right way, how to express yourself. How you do it is important, too.
Jim Kane, U.S. Army veteran
“I think that they have every right to protest, but I don’t think that’s the venue to do it,” said Jim Kane, a 55-year-old Army veteran and Thomaston native.
Jim Kane, 55, U.S. Army veteran and Thomaston native, served as a military intelligence officer from 1986-95.
“The flag is about honoring veterans and first responders and the sacrifices they made. A lot of veterans paid for our freedom with their lives,” he said.
Christian Vital, UConn men’s basketball guard
From Queens, N.Y. and an attendee of schools in Connecticut, Christian Vital is beginning his sophomore season at UConn.
“I just think it’s unfortunate, a lot of the situations that have been going on. I understand why some people are taking the knee to protest, just to bring these situations to light, but in my opinion everybody should just be treated equally.
I don’t think your skin color, your race or where you come from should determine how you’re treated as a person, it’s the actions and intentions entailed to people around you.
It’s unfortunate, it’s an unfortunate situation that we live in and we’re around, but I do hope and I do pray that we are able to live in a better world five or 10 years from now.
Roger Dewey, Torrington resident
“I understand the protest process completely, and I’m behind them,” said Roger Dewey, who was walking down Main Street in Torrington last week. “But I think there’s a time and a place for protest, and I don’t think this is it.”
Dewey argues that the attention the athletes are bringing to their cause is only negative and is actually hurting what they’re trying to promote.
“Just because you’re an athlete, you shouldn’t be given this soapbox for national recognition,” he said. “This country is already divided, and I don’t think this is helping that.”
Chris Lee, Southington resident
Chris Lee said he’s “not thrilled” with the protests, but didn’t dispute the players’ right to make a statement, even in an NFL stadium.
“I’m still watching football,” said Lee, as he watched the Southington-Conard High football matchup last week.. “It’s a peaceful protest, and it’s their constitutional right to do it.”
Though the country was already divided on Colin Kaepernick’s genuflections, which began last year, President Trump has widened that rift even further, Lee said. Last week, the president directed a salvo of tweets at the NFL, accusing players of disrespecting the flag and urging team owners to fire kneeling players.
“He’s making it worse,” Lee said. “He needs to stop talking. We have other, bigger issues we need to solve right now, and he’s definitely making things more divisive than they need to be.”
Courant staff writers Desmond Conner, John Altavilla, Dom Amore, Lori Riley, Jesse Leavenworth, Vinny Vella and Matt Ormseth contributed to this story.