The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions played football Sunday afternoon.
Both teams managed to lose the game.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford drove the Lions toward the goal line as time ran out, hitting receiver Golden Tate on a short slant pass for what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown.
The Lions celebrated. Their fans danced in the aisle. The Falcons were downcast, tasting the same kind of collapse that has haunted them ever since last February’s Super Bowl meltdown.
Technically, eight seconds remained. But one look at the Atlanta sideline told the story. They’d lost the game.
For a while, no one seemed to notice that officials weren’t making the touchdown official yet. Instant replay officials were going over the play with a magnifying glass, slowly coming to the conclusion that Tate’s knee hit the ground when the ball was one lace short of crossing the goal line.
Only freeze-frame instant replay could have possibly led to such an ruling. But the ruling was announced, leaving the ball dead at the six-inch line. No game-winning touchdown. Points on the scoreboard were removed.
There was more.
Because of their frantic rush in the closing seconds, the Lions were out of timeouts. By rule in this situation, there had to be a 10-second “run-off” before play could resume. But with just eight seconds left in the game, the run-off meant the game was over.
The Lions stopped celebrating. Detroit stopped dancing. The game was just … over. By the time it all sank in, it was too late to even boo.
It was the worst way to win or lose a game, even if you were pulling for the Falcons.
The Falcons, by the way, weren’t celebrating their surprise victory. Moments before, they’d taken a dagger to the heart. Even with the stunning announcement, Atlanta’s sideline didn’t erupt in celebration. They’d just given up a game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds. Who could celebrate that?
It was the strangest of Sundays in the NFL. No matter what happened, it felt like everyone lost.
There’s been an uncomfortable moment in NFL games for more than a year as some players of color have been taking a knee, bowing or even sitting down during the national anthem as a way of protesting what they believe to be discrimination against African Americans in the United States. For a while last year, it was news. By the start of this season, it was just another reminder that we’re a very divided country.
When President Donald Trump voiced frustration with the practice in a fiery speech in Alabama last week, players and team owners responded with the largest national-anthem protests to date. This time, it was more of a statement about the right of every American to speak his or her mind, even if the President of the United States isn’t a fan.
But did you feel like celebrating as you watched it? Did it look like any of the players on the sidelines were happy while the familiar notes of the national anthem were bouncing off the stadium walls as they locked arms, bowed their heads or even sat in a locker room?
It’s a losers game, this protesting during the Star Spangled Banner.
The national anthem is precious to all Americans, especially to those who’ve served in the country’s armed forces. To men and women who’ve risked their lives or seen friends die while fighting under our flag, the sitting, kneeling and bowing is especially offensive. The national anthem had been a way to honor those who’ve served. With the protests, it almost feels as though we’re embarrassed to be Americans. We’re losing our sense of pride and unity.
To people paying exorbitant prices to see million-dollar athletes play a game, the protesting also looks pretty cheap. The sit-downs and kneel-downs are creating enemies among the faithful. The NFL is losing face.
And what of the original goal of all the protests? How are we supposed to know if this worked? Did it ever occur to Colin Kaepernick that his effort to make things better in America might need an end-game plan? Are we forever doomed to have racial discord thrust in our face every time the band strikes up our national song? Have we lost all the progress we thought we’d made?
Could there, perhaps, be a more positive way to deal with these problems than sitting when the nation is standing or burning bridges with angry tweets?
It was a Sunday when everyone lost.
The President, despite his bluster, lost big-time. If he’d wanted to see change, he should have quietly tweeted invitations to key NFL players to come to the White House. There, he could have challenged them to bring the protests to a positive end. His angry comments only made things far worse.
The players, brave as they tried to be, lost respect across the heartland.
And lest we forget, discrimination is still alive and well. Prejudice is flourishing. We’ve all lost on that scoreboard.
In the meantime, people in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico wish we’d quit talking about NFL symbolism and simply help them rebuild their shattered communities. We’re losing the opportunity to help with every hour that goes by.
Like the disappointing finish to the Lions-Falcons game on Sunday, this is leaving a bad feeling in the pit of our national stomach.
Someone in leadership needs to take this situation and do something positive. That could have been the President. Unfortunately, he’s probably lost that opportunity.
Some of our big-name athletes could turn this thing around. They’ve found it possible to speak out in the last few days, most of them in negative ways. Could they, perhaps, say something positive about the incredible country that gave them a chance to make millions playing a game? Could they call off the protests and crank up some life-giving community involvement? Could they challenge the young men and women of their own communities to strive for success, no matter what obstacles lay in their paths? Seems like a successful pro athlete would be a great role model for that concept.
Maybe it could even be you and me who makes a difference right now. Maybe we could ignore the spotlight seekers and just do what we can, today, to make this country of ours a better place to live … for everyone.
That might take courage. Overcoming prejudice, forgetting the pain of past hurts and trying to do the right thing isn’t easy. It’s difficult. And doing the difficult things takes courage.
But I believe we can do this.
After all, if anyone is still listening to our suddenly controversial national anthem, it has a reminder for us.
If this is still the land of the free, it will only be because it is also still the home … of the brave.