Chargers’ Okung Issues Call to Action for N.F.L. Players

In an unusual and public call to arms, a Los Angeles Chargers lineman posted a letter on The Players’ Tribune on Friday morning urging the league’s 1,700 players to take a unified stand against pressure from N.F.L. team owners to curb demonstrations during the national anthem before games.

“We can either wait until we receive our respective marching orders, speak up individually, or find a way to collaborate, and exercise our agency as the lifeblood of the league,” the player, Russell Okung, wrote.

Okung’s nearly 900-word manifesto takes N.F.L. owners to task for making decisions on anthem demonstrations, which have typically involved players kneeling or sitting during the anthem, without broadly consulting players. The owners plan to meet next week to discuss the demonstrations, which were originally intended to draw attention to racial inequality and police shootings of African-Americans.

But that initial message has become blurred, and owners could be prepared to issue restrictions on the protests, especially after drawing condemnation from President Trump and a number of fans in recent weeks.

Trump has said that players who kneel or sit during the national anthem are disrespecting the flag and the military, though many players say it is their patriotic duty to bring attention to social injustice and other ills in society.

In a phone interview on Thursday, Okung said he wrote the letter as a way to move players’ focus away from the president’s agenda and back toward their own goals of addressing inequity.

“I’m about shifting the narrative. We can’t be distracted by what he is trying to do,” Okung said of the president. “We’re honing our voice. We’re not unified against Trump, we’re unified against social injustice.”

In his letter, Okung, an offensive lineman who was named to the Pro Bowl after the 2012 season, lamented that the original message of the protests, which were started last season by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, had gotten muddled and had exposed divisions among players, fans and owners.

“As Kap’s message has now been distorted, co-opted and used to further divide us along the very racial lines he was highlighting, we as players have a responsibility to come together and respond collectively,” wrote Okung, 30, who is African-American and has Nigerian heritage.

In a letter to N.F.L. executives this week, the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, said he and the owners wanted the players to stand for the anthem. The owners will meet next week in New York, where they will consider whether to enforce league rules that state players must be on the sideline during the national anthem and should stand while it is being played. To date, the league has not penalized any players for kneeling, sitting or remaining in the locker room during the anthem.

The commissioner and the owners have been meeting small groups of players about the issue at the league’s headquarters and in various cities. About 10 players will also be attending the owners meeting.

Some players have reacted scornfully on social media to the suggestion they might be forced to stand. But Okung’s letter is a rare example of a player trying to unite all his peers in defiance of the league, and it sheds light on the frustration many athletes have only privately expressed regarding recent events.

“Things have clearly gotten out of control,” he wrote. “As a pragmatist, I will admit, I initially doubted the merits of Colin Kaepernick’s protest and questioned the strategy. I was wrong.

“There is now no doubt that what he started was a courageous, prophetic, self-sacrificial act that has captivated a nation and inspired a powerful movement,” he added. “If I had his cell phone number, I would tell him that.”

Players routinely speak to teammates and to friends on other teams. Last year, players on several teams coordinated via text messages how to approach the anthem on the first Sunday of the season, which fell on Sept. 11.

Broader conversations across multiple teams, though, have not been possible, Okung wrote, adding that the N.F.L. Players Association was ill-suited to facilitating larger discussions because the players are also competitors and “the system is designed to keep us divided and stifle our attempts to collaborate.”

Okung said in the phone interview that his immediate goal was to identify players across the league who want to do more, then discuss their next steps.

In his letter, Okung invited players to contact him on Twitter and when they do he will send them instructions on how to communicate as a larger group. He said he hoped that his letter reached as many players as possible, and that it “acts as a catalyst to convene a conversation among those of us who are uncomfortable having these important decisions made without us in the room.”

“While I don’t have all the answers as to how to ensure we are not robbed of this moment, I am convinced that we will never make progress if we do not find a way to come together and take action that represents the will of the players,’’ Okung wrote. “What we have is strength in numbers.”