Denver Broncos Coach Vance Joseph said Monday that “our players have the right to a peaceful protest,” but "I believe in standing for the anthem.”
President Donald Trump's criticism of players who kneel during the national anthem, made while campaigning for a Senate candidate in Alabama on Friday, sparked angry protests around the National Football League Sunday, as about 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance.
A week ago, just six players protested. It was a gesture that began last year with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who wanted to draw attention to police officers shooting and killing unarmed black men.
On Sunday, 32 Broncos took a knee during the national anthem, many of them with their arms locked in a show of solidarity. Elsewhere, a handful of teams stayed off the field until after "The Star-Spangled Banner" to avoid the issue altogether.
“The flag and the anthem mean a lot to me,” Joseph, the first African-American head coach in Broncos’ history, said. “It's important for me to stand.”
"Obviously the comments [Trump's] didn't sit well with our football team, or the entire NFL, but hopefully we can move past this and play football, because politics and football don't mix in my opinion. I'm a football coach, they're football players and our job is to win football games. So hopefully we can get back to that this week."
"I don't think it's a distraction for the players,” Joseph said. “I think it's a separate issue. I think some of the guys feel strongly about their beliefs and the comments that were made. But I think once the ball has been kicked, the players play football."
He also believes the protest had "zero to none" effect on the team’s performance Sunday, in which they lost to the Buffalo Bills.
"We talked to our players Saturday night about the comments, because they were upset about the comments, and I actually said, ‘Look guys, I get it, you're upset, but put the team first tomorrow, okay? Let's put our best foot forward. Let's focus on playing a football game,’” Joseph said.
Linebacker Brandon Marshall echoed that sentiment.
“We're professionals. We've been doing this our whole lives. So, you know, if we want to protest: cool, national anthem take a knee. Alright, get up: okay, football time.”
Marshall lost numerous endorsement deals and came in for public criticism after kneeling during the anthem last year to protest racism.
Coach Joseph concluded his remarks Monday by noting that team harmony is in good shape.
"In an NFL locker room, I think it's a perfect example of what our country should be. You have guys of all sorts of families and backgrounds that get along great in the locker room. So how we live should be an example for the country... as far as ignoring color and personalities, any differences, ignoring those. And I'm a good person, you're a good person, let's get along. That's our locker room."
“Me and my teammates, we felt like President Trump’s speech was an assault on our most cherished right, freedom of speech,” Star linebacker Von Miller told the Denver Post after Sunday’s game. “And collectively, we felt like we had to do something for this game."
Politics in pro sports is not new for Denver. Back in 1996, Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf also refused to stand for the national anthem. He was fined and suspended and some say it ruined his career.
CPR's Anthony Cotton contributed to this report.