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Trump reignites NFL protest controversy by ordering Mike Pence to leave a Colts game

The protests were dying down. Not anymore.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor and Congress member from Indiana, announced on Twitter that he had left Sunday’s football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers to express his discontent with some 49ers players’ decision to protest police violence against African Americans by kneeling during the national anthem:

Pence’s tweets explaining his leaving the Colts/49ers game @VP

President Trump said on Twitter that he had instructed Pence to leave should any players kneel:

Trump on the Pence departure @realDonaldTrump

While counts vary, between 15 and 23 players for the 49ers were seen kneeling during the anthem. The team continued the effort at a time when others are abandoning the protests; while players for the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills knelt the week before, they stood for the anthem on Sunday. The 49ers are the former team of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the anti-brutality kneeling protest while playing for them, before becoming a free agent in March. Many supporters and other analysts believe Kaepernick’s activism has prevented another team from signing him.

The controversy over anthem protests had largely died down when President Trump decided to revive it in late September 2017, arguing that the protests were disrespectful to the flag and to the armed forces. (Kaepernick and other kneeling players have always been clear that they’re not disrespecting the military but are protesting police violence against African Americans.)

The result was a second wave of protests, in which the number of players kneeling or otherwise using the anthem to protest exploded. Black athletes outside the NFL, most notably NBA players Stephen Curry and LeBron James, joined in and denounced Trump. Even conservative owners like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder (who gave $1 million to Trump’s campaign) took the field to participate, arguably diluting the protests’ meaning.

The second wave was dying down when Pence went back to his home state to see the Colts play in Lucas Oil Stadium and watch a number-retiring ceremony for former quarterback Peyton Manning, who played for the Colts for 13 years and won the team its only Super Bowl since it relocated to Indianapolis.

Now, by leaving and apparently doing so at Trump’s instigation, Pence is reigniting the controversy, potentially sparking another round of demonstrations by players and ensuring the fight over the anthem protests continues for another week at least.