Barber: 49ers GM John Lynch calls anthem protests 'divisive'

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SANTA CLARA — The Lynch who plays for the Raiders, Marshawn, remained seated on the bench while the national anthem played in Arizona last Saturday night. Presumably, it was a form of political demonstration. Wednesday, I asked the Lynch who runs the 49ers, John, what he thought about the silent anthem protests that are likely to blossom around the NFL in the coming weeks.

“We had a great deal the other day where we had four chairs up here, and there was (former 49ers quarterback) Steve Young and (former wide receiver) Jerry Rice,” John Lynch, the team’s rookie general manager, said. “And they talked about ‘the 49er way.’ And I always thought that’s one of the great things about this league. As a matter of fact, I think it’s a great beacon for the rest of culture, in terms of the way it should be. You strive for a common goal, and you have unity. And I think this game brings people together.

“So I think personally when I see (the protests), I think that’s divisive.”

Lynch made it clear that he was not trying to crack down on the potential protesters on his roster.

“I understand guys see things and they’re not happy,” he said. “They have that right. And I think we’ll always respect people’s rights. That doesn’t mean I believe that. I believe this game should be celebrated for what it is — I think, a tremendous unifier for our country, and for the way things should be.”

John Lynch is admired, practically revered, by those who have played or studied or worked alongside him. He didn’t necessarily say anything offensive in his answer. But he missed a great opportunity.

And once again we are reminded that the NFL is an inherently conservative and even regressive institution. The complex teamwork and physical sacrifice of football demand 100 percent buy-in by its players. There is no room for individual thought — or so the coaches and executives of the league would tell you.

Compare this to the NBA. After the election of Donald Trump in November, and especially as the new president moved forward with anti-immigrant policies and insensitive tweets, coaches like the Warriors’ Steve Kerr, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy took turns outdoing one another in their condemnation. They were so passionate, so eloquent that, honestly, they practically moved me to tears on a couple of occasions.

Just Wednesday, Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale publicly decried the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, and Trump’s noncommittal response.

Among other things, Fizdale said this: “I can’t sit and watch this, not in a city where Dr. King was assassinated 50 years ago, where we have, even today in our city, a statue of a known Klansman, right here in the beautiful city of Memphis with all these incredibly wonderful people. It’s unacceptable; it will no longer stand.”

Meanwhile, you’ve got Rob Ryan, the former Raiders defensive coordinator, going on Fox Sports with host Colin Cowherd and saying, “I think the whole country needs a dose of, ‘Hey, let’s be proud of our country.’ Let’s stand behind our president. Let’s do things. Do we have other issues? Absolutely we do. Now’s not the time to do that.”

When’s the time, Rob? When swastikas fly in every city in America?

Back in January, I covered an event at San Jose State University, a roundtable discussion to launch the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change.

It featured an amazing panel that included NFL legend Jim Brown, Olympic medalist and civil rights protester Tommie Smith and former 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin, among others.

At one point I asked Boldin if it bothered him that NBA coaches were so forceful on the subject of inclusivity, while NFL coaches offered radio silence. Boldin’s answer was guarded. He basically said that he doesn’t judge anyone who chooses not to speak out.

Tommie Smith provided a more strongly worded response. And then the panel moderator, Dr. Harry Edwards, added his two cents.

“We’re talking apples and oranges when we’re talking NBA and NFL,” Edwards said. “NBA, you have maybe 15 guys, probably all but two or three guys are African-Americans. If you’re on a team like San Antonio, it looks like the United Nations, virtually everybody is from somewhere else. And so the issue is … a settled issue for all practical purposes, because of the ethnic orientation of the guys on the team.”

Edwards contrasted those demographics with Major League Baseball and with the NFL.

“In the NFL, you have 53 guys, and some other guys hanging around,” he said. “A lot of those 53 guys are central figures such as quarterback — Tom Brady, (Peyton) Manning and so forth. They have dispositions oftentimes that are not the same as the activist athletes, the Colin Kaepernicks. A coach under those circumstances runs a tremendous risk if he does not manage that situation properly.”

Edwards is one of America’s most respected civil rights voices, a timeless veteran of the battle for equality. He’s also a longtime consultant for the 49ers. But I’ll be honest. I hoped for more in his answer.

Edwards is right when he says that it’s harder to bash Trump in the NFL than it is in the NBA. Ask Kaepernick, who may have sacrificed his football career to bring attention to police shootings of unarmed black men and women. But that doesn’t mean we should let NFL coaches and execs off the hook so easily. They are paid to lead.

Lynch had a chance to join the chorus started by Kaepernick and joined by teammate Eric Reid, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, retired tight end Shannon Sharpe and other athletes.

With a first-year head coach even younger than himself, Lynch is the voice of the 49ers on matters like this. And his performance Wednesday was lacking.

When Lynch praised the solidarity of the football team, he was effusive and expansive. When he mentioned the troubling things “guys see” in our society, it sounded like an afterthought. And “divisive”? Nazis marching with torches on a college campus in divisive. Sitting down for the national anthem is a natural response.

With their words and actions, athletes like Kaepernick, Bennett and Sharpe are saying they love football, but that the injustices they are witnessing in Trump’s America are more important. Lynch more or less said the opposite. He noted the problems we’re facing but suggested that the solidarity of the football team is paramount.

It’s not an evil position. It’s just not the right one. And you can bet his 49ers players noticed.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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