Lewis on locking arms: 'They weren't going to let divisive words divide them'

Bengals lock arms amid NFL protests

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Some Cincinnati Bengals players locked arms during the national anthem Sunday amid protests across the NFL.

The Bengals weren’t the only team who knelt, locked arms or raised fists Sunday in the wake of President Donald Trump’s criticism of players who protest during the national anthem.

Trump’s comments incited a mass increase in such activism Sunday, with more than 100 NFL players sitting or kneeling, others raising their fists and whole teams standing with locked arms to display unity.

The Bengals sent this statement following the national anthem of Sunday’s game:

“Football and politics don't mix easily. Fans come to NFL games to watch great competition on the playing field and that's where our focus should be."

Coach Marvin Lewis said the controversy put the players in an “awkward position," but he said the team decided to stand together to show their support for the community and one another. 

“Our guys remain very committed to winning football games and continuing the things, the great things they do in our community in Cincinnati -- their outreach and everything they do,” Lewis said. “They chose to show their support for our veterans, for our military, for the Cincinnati community by simply standing and standing unified together. They weren't going to let divisive words divide them.

“That’s the conclusion they came to, to be very respectful of the anthem and to stand together and focus on what we want to do and that’s win football games, and we’ve been consistent with that all the way through … enough to be said about it, it’s over. You don't want to have that be a focus of football, and unfortunately it was. It was something that had gone away, and all of a sudden it got back to the forefront.”

Wide receiver AJ Green said the team decided to lock arms to show that their bond as a family will prevail. 

"We're a family here. We don't care what color you are, what background you come from -- it doesn't matter," Green said. "Our one goal is to win. We're a family, we go through too much to be divided over what somebody says.

"As a black man, I understand what people stand for ... but sometimes we just have to come together. We can't show more divided in sports. We've got to stick together and show people that it doesn't matter -- your skin color or where you come from -- we still can stand as one."

Bengals fans had plenty to say about the team’s decision to lock arms.

Some fans, like Josh Carter, said they were proud of the team.

“Together they stood against President Trump and that's fine, together they did that,” Carter said.

B.J. Edgar said he’s not sure how he feels about kneeling during the national anthem, but he was fine with what the Bengals did Sunday.

"I agree with unity,” Edgar said. “I'm not sure that kneeling is the best way to protest, but if they all want to come out and lock arms, I agree with that."

Others said any form of protest is unacceptable.

“It's a shame, it's a disrespect to our country,” Mara Cromer said.

Several fans agreed that politics should be left out of football.

"I just want to watch football on Sundays, that's it. Politics should be left out,” Andrew Simak said.

The reactions reverberated across the Atlantic, where about two dozen players, including Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before the start of the teams’ game at Wembley Stadium in London.

MORE: At least 100 NFL players kneel or sit in protest

Other players on both teams and Jaguars owner Shad Khan remained locked arm-in-arm throughout the playing of the national anthem and “God Save The Queen.”

One team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, stayed in the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Last week across the entire NFL, only four players knelt or sat, and two stood with their fists raised. In the nine early games Sunday, AP reporters counted 102 players kneeling or sitting, and at least three raising their fists.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first athlete to refuse to stand during the national anthem as a protest to police treatment of minorities last year. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.

That protest movement ballooned Sunday following Trump’s weekend rant that began with him calling for NFL protesters to be fired. It continued Saturday with the president rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who had said they were considering not attending.

By Sunday, it was one of the main topics of conversation on social media and around the country.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, more than a dozen New Orleans Saints players sat during the anthem, including star running back Adrian Peterson. In Buffalo, New York, more than half the Denver Broncos knelt during the anthem and a handful of Buffalo Bills sat or knelt.

In Minneapolis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson knelt with the rest of the team locking arms during the “Star Spangled Banner.” The Minnesota Vikings also locked arms. Although no Vikings were spotted taking a knee during the anthem, at least a dozen players sprinted into one end zone and took a knee with head bowed, before the crowd was asked to stand.

On Sunday, NFL owners continued issuing statements condemning the president’s divisive words and players took part in displays of unity across the league.

The league and its players, often at odds, have been united in condemning the president’s criticisms, with commissioner Roger Goodell saying Saturday that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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