Five members of the St. Louis Rams rubbed some cops the wrong way. Now those cops are arguing over the meaning of "apology."
It was a simple act by the five NFL players from the team from St. Louis on Sunday. The players entered the field with their hands held high in acknowledgement of the "Hands up, don't shoot" mantra that has become a rallying cry for supporters of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
But the response to it has been anything but simple — and by Monday night, the St. Louis Police and Rams management were embroiled in a row over whether the team had apologized for the gesture.
Since a grand jury declined to indict former officer Darren Wilson on the charge of unlawfully killing Brown, tensions have been running high in the state and out of it. Symbolically, the players' action was huge: sports celebrities using their platform to deliver a message, when it's so easy for them to avoid doing just that.
But the local police response was almost as uncompromising as it was during the August protests in Ferguson. Back then we saw body armor, Pentagon-surplus vehicles and sniper rifles. Judging by the images alone, it was often hard to tell whether the St. Louis suburb was being treated as an Iraq-like war zone.
On a smaller scale, the response to the five Rams' silent protest from the St. Louis Police Police Officers Association (SLPOA) was equally surreal. It urged the Rams and the NFL to discipline Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, the players involved.
"I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights," SLPOA Business Manager Jeff Roorda said. "Well I've got news for people who think that way, cops have First Amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertisers' products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters."
Roorda, it turns out, has a checkered past — he was fired as a police officer himself in 2001 for twice falsifying police reports, among other questionable actions.
But despite that call from Roorda and the SLPOA, no such action was handed down by the Rams or the NFL on Monday. Coach Jeff Fisher said the players "made the choice to exercise their free speech."
The story took another strange turn Monday night, when St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar reportedly said in a memo to officers that Rams Vice President of Football Operations Kevin Demoff had apologized for the players' show of support for Brown.
Demoff, meanwhile, said he expressed remorse for how the players' actions were interpreted but did not apologize. The discrepancy in accounts led to, well ... this.
Apology: "expression of regret for not being able to do something"
@kdemoff: "I regretted any offense their officers may have taken."— St. Louis County PD (@stlcountypd) December 2, 2014
The five Rams aren't the only to make public statements about Brown and Ferguson while they play. Washington players took the field with their hands up back in August. Turkish soccer fans even expressed their support that same month. NBA player Ben McLemore, who is from St. Louis, played a game just this Sunday with "RIP Mike Brown" written on his shoe.
But the Rams play in a stadium that's a 15-minute drive from where Wilson killed Brown; that made the players' statement all the more powerful. But while their silent statement was about Brown, it was also about a deeply disturbing pattern of white police officers killing unarmed black teenagers.
In many cases those officers — who, make no mistake, have extremely challenging and important jobs — overreact to what should be minor events. That gives Roorda's retort to the Rams players, and Monday night's dictionary-citing tweet, no shortage of symbolism.
Kings G Ben McLemore - a St. Louis native - wrote "RIP Mike Brown" on his sneakers (Rocky Widner/Getty)pic.twitter.com/JrkKpVAjP5— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) December 1, 2014
But the most poignant gesture from Sunday's NFL game that drew so much attention may not have actually been the five players putting their hands up. It may well have been the wrist-tape worn by Kenny Britt, one of those players. Britt's tape drew little if any attention during the game — but plenty after, when he posted a photo to Instagram.
On Britt's right wrist was written Brown's name. On his left wrist was written the reason Brown's name and memory are so important.
"My kids matter," the caption said.
Like the five Rams' raised arms, the message was heard loud and clear.
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