Before Colin Kaepernick, one NFL player silently protested the national anthem, and it was closer to the time that Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their protest, than to when Kaepernick made his.
But David Meggyesy, former linebacker, activist author and players'union executive, was alone among players back in 1968. Kaepernick has now been joined by a teammate, a fellow NFL player and, notably, U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe last weekend.
"That’s wonderful. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Good for those guys,"Meggyesytold Sporting Newslast weekend,upon hearing of the 49ers’ Eric Reid and the Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane also kneeling and sitting, respectively, before their games. (Meggyesy spoke to SNbefore Rapinoe knelt during the anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick Sunday night before her National Women’s Soccer League game in Chicago.)
"This puts it front and center into the consciousness of Joe Public,"Meggyesy continued. "It’s in the mindset of fans that now, it's not just about that one player. You can’t just focus in on that player, you’ve got to focus on the issues at hand."
Meggyesy, 74, made his protest gesture before a game for the then-St. Louis Cardinals late in the 1968 season — not long after Smith and Carlos raised their fists on the podium at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.
In defiance of a new rule instituted after the Olympics protest by commissioner Pete Rozelle, requiring players to stand in line facing the flag with helmet under one arm and hand over heart during the anthem, Meggyesy held his helmet in front of him with both hands and bowed his head.
"I just said no,"Meggyesy said. “No one’s going to give me an order about whether to face the flag or not."
Local media and fans scorchedMeggyesythe following week, he remembered — and at the Cardinals’ next home game, a banner was unfurled at Busch Stadium, calling him and the team out as Communist sympathizers.
"Big Red Thinks Pink,"Meggyesy recalled with a laugh. "I'll never forget that."
His well-known stance against the war in Vietnam — earlier that season, he had been ordered by Cardinals co-owner Charles “Stormy” Bidwill (the brother of current owner Bill) to apologize to the team for circulating an anti-war petition in the locker room — fueled the venom from inside and outside the team, Meggyesy said.
So he was not surprised that Kaepernick’s gesture was portrayed as anti-American, as opposed to an attempt to hold America accountable for its oppression of people of color, and for police brutality against them.
Turning what he did into a referendum on his love of his country, he said, "is a smoke screen … a way to avoid the issues he is raising."
The worst example of that, he added, was the unnamed league executive who told Bleacher Reportthe last player to inspire this much anger in NFL front offices was convicted murderconspiracistRae Carruth.
"Yeah, that was crazy. Who does that?"he said.
In 1969, the year after the petition and the anthem protest, the Cardinals benchedMeggyesy, a starter throughout most of his career. He retired from the NFL after that season, at age 28, then wrote a tell-all book, “Out of Their League,"that drew even more rage from the NFL establishment; one coach, he remembered, accused him of "destroying the minds of the youth."
Meggyesy was the NFL Players Association’s western director for 25 years, and he isnow an advisor to the union’s joint study on concussions with Harvard. And he still never hesitates to jab the league when the opportunity presents itself, as he did during Deflategate lastyear.
Now, however, he took notice of how the NFL's official position on the anthem was that players were “encouraged,"not "required,"to stand.
"That’s different,"he said, laughing. "They may have remembered."