NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons came together for a powerful display of unity Monday night by joining hands in a circle around the field following the national anthem.
A source told ESPN’s Britt McHenry that Saints coach Sean Payton reached out to Falcons coach Dan Quinn with the idea earlier in the week — and player leaders from both teams loved it.
They figured it was a great way for players to join the growing protests around the NFL against injustice in America, while still making it a message about unity — especially with two longtime rival teams from culturally-rich cities. They plan to spend a minute holding hands in thought and prayer.
The gesture was inspired by the latest police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa this past week. The source suggested that a handful of players had been feeling outside pressure to join the cause, but that they didn’t want to do it at the expense of the teams.
Saints running back Mark Ingram expressed that very conundrum earlier this week.
“We’ll probably come up with something before Sunday. We just want everybody to be on the same page, and we want it to be unity,” said Ingram, who has strongly supported the message of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others who have protested during the national anthem – and who said more than once Friday that his “heart is hurting.”
“We want it to be all, everybody, because that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to bring everybody together. Our nation needs to come together. Everybody needs to care for each other,” Ingram said. “And that’s what’s so good about sports. It brings everybody together, no matter what race. These are my brothers in here. Guys I played with in the past, those are my brothers. You don’t see color, you just see a guy who you work hard with and go to battle with and work with every single day. I understand that there’s differences when you go out to the real world. So we just want to set an example, and we want to bring unity.
“We want everybody to be together, and don’t want to do anything that causes division or controversy.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was one of the most vocal critics of Kaepernick’s decision to use the national anthem as his forum for protest. Brees said he supported Kaepernick’s message, but he “wholeheartedly” disagreed with his method because he found it disrespectful to the flag and the sacrifices of military members.
“I know people have different opinions about the anthem,” Ingram said. “But Kaep’s cause and what he’s doing it for, for the injustices of not just blacks but anybody who (is a victim of) police brutality … I know it happens to everybody, whites, blacks, Asians. It’s just unfortunate.
“So I support (the protestors) and everything they stand for 100 percent. But with my team, I want us to do something that we all would be proud of. It’s just unfortunate what’s going on in our country right now.”