DETROIT - What was promised to be a large-scale patriotic rally of men and women protesting NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem was, in reality, not much.
Eight men in various iterations of red-white-and-blue garb stood outside of Ford Field on Sunday morning carrying American flags and signs asking football fans to please "stand for vets."
"I am out here for love and patriotism for my country," said Joe Miriani, 57, a retired UAW autoworker from Ann Arbor, who sported a decked-out cowboy hat.
The protest before Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers, was organized by Brian Pannebecker, a Donald Trump supporter and leader of Michigan Freedom to Work. The plan was shared on Facebook and reported on by the news media, including the Free Press.
On game day, however, the hype was far bigger than the reality. The protesters observed by a Free Press reporter stood along Brush Street in front of Gate B of the stadium, asking people to stand for the anthem, but not overtly getting into anyone's face.
The national debate over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem heated up last month when President Donald Trump at a Sept. 22 rally in Alabama called on NFL owners to fire anyone who engaged in the silent protest against police brutality and racism. The speech conflated the act of taking a knee with a lack of patriotism, and that weekend social media was afire on the subject as Trump continued to tweet about NFL players and what he saw as their disrespect of the flag.
Many players and team owners thumbed their noses at Trump the following Sunday by either taking a knee during the anthem or locking arms in solidarity. In Detroit, eight Lions plays kneeled while team owner Martha Ford linked arms with the players during the anthem. After the game, she announced that she would donate money to justice-minded organizations of the athletes choosing, if they would stand, instead of kneeling, during the anthem.
None of the Lions players took a knee during Sunday's game, but in Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence left the Indianapolis Colts game after several players from the San Francisco 49ers chose to kneel during the national anthem.
"I left today's Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem," Pence wrote in a tweet.
Some of the fans entering Ford Field agreed with the protesters.
"Take a knee is just straight up disrespectful to the United States. There are a lot of people who fought pretty hard for this country and the freedoms that we have, and to do that on national television is pretty terrible. I would say that taking a knee goes against what we fought for," said a young man named Ryan who declined to give his last name.
When asked "what we fought for" Ryan hit a mental roadblock.
"We fought for our country and for our freedoms — but I guess, I got to think about this one," he said, at which point a friend told him he was contradicting himself.
Britt Simerson, 23, who was with the group said she believed "to each their own. Everybody has different beliefs. Some are doing it for their hate for Trump, some are doing it because of their own personal beliefs and reasons. To each their own."
On the other side of the stadium, eight members of the Metro Detroit Political Action Network — wearing shirts that said "Black Lives Matter" and "F***Nazis" — tailgated in a parking lot while holding signs supporting the players that took a knee.
"We got word that there were going to be Trump supporters here protesting the NFL because of the whole taking a knee thing and so we decided just to come and support the NFL and the constitution," said Nicole Vasher, 44, a nurse who lives in Wyandotte.
"Hopefully there is no confrontation, we just want to show support for the players," Vasher said.
The movement started more than a year ago, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to stay seated during the national anthem.
"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 a news conference after first sitting out during the anthem. "To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave, and getting away with murder."
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