In an apparently pre-planned stunt, Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left an NFL game in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon after roughly 20 players knelt during the national anthem.
“I left today’s [Indianapolis] Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence wrote on Twitter after leaving Lucas Oil Stadium, where the hometown Indianapolis Colts were set to play the San Francisco 49ers.
“At at time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience, now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us,” Pence said in a statement elaborating on his initial tweet. “While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem. I stand with President Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem.”
The San Francisco 49ers are the only NFL franchise to have had at least one player kneel during the national anthem in every game since former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began doing so in the 2016 preseason. Kaepernick, currently a free agent, began kneeling in protest of police brutality against black men.
Apparently in anticipation of 49ers’ kneeling, the press pool traveling with the vice president in Indiana was told to stay in the vans that travel with Pence’s motorcade because “there may be an early departure from the game.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) criticized the apparently pre-planned move to leave the game on Twitter:
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) also criticized the move, particularly in light of recent controversies regarding private flights by members of Trump’s cabinet that resulted in the resignation of Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services:
Followers also noted that before the game, Pence tweeted a three-year-old picture of himself and wife Karen Pence in Colts team garb, later tweeting a more up-to-date photograph of him holding his hand over his heart during the anthem. Pence, the former governor of Indiana, is a longtime fan of the Colts.
A spokesperson for the National Football League did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but 49ers safety Eric Reid, one of the franchise’s most visible kneeling players, told reporters after the game that Pence’s move was a “PR stunt.”
“Does anybody know the last time he’s been to a football game?” Reid said. “With that being said, he tweeted out a three-year old photo of him at a Colts game so with the information I have the last time he was at a Colts game was three years ago. So this looks like a PR stunt to me.”
“He knew our team has had the most players protest. He knew that we were probably going to do it again. This is what systemic oppression looks like,“ Reid continued. “A man with power comes to the game, tweets a couple of things out and leaves the game with an attempt to thwart our efforts. Based on the information I have, that’s the assumption I’ve made.”
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said after his first protest in 2016. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick vowed to continue his protest until he felt that the American flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.”
The protest incited controversy among football fans—and in NFL locker rooms—that reached a climax in September, when President Donald Trump asked his supporters during an Alabama rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.’”
Trump has since tweeted repeatedly on the subject, calling for a boycott of the NFL until players who kneel during the national anthem are benched.
After Pence’s departure from Lucas Oil Stadium, Trump tweeted that the entire affair had actually been his idea:
The Colts beat the 49ers, 26 to 23.