Jim Ayello and Emma Kate Fittes, IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS — Sunday’s Indianapolis Colts game was turned into a political arena when Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that he walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium after a group of San Francisco 49ers players knelt during the national anthem.
"I left today's Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence tweeted minutes after leaving the stadium.
More than 20 49ers players dropped to a knee during the anthem, as they have repeatedly since last year, to protest racial inequality and social injustice.
Hours before the game Sunday, the former Indiana governor tweeted that he and his wife, Karen, were looking forward to cheering on the Colts. But the Pences — who had arrived in Indianapolis on Saturday night — stood for the anthem, then left the game.
NBC News' Vaughn Hillyard reported that the vice presidential press pool was told before the game to stay in vans outside of the stadium because Pence "may depart the game early." Hillyard reported that Pence returned to his hotel after leaving the game and would fly to California later Sunday.
Not long after Pence left, Trump tweeted that he had requested the vice president leave the stadium if any players “knelt, disrespecting our country,” and said he was proud of the Pences for respecting his wishes.
His brief stop in Indianapolis was likely expensive, as CNN's Kevin Liptak tweeted that Air Force 2 flights cost "$42,936/hour." That figure was reported in a 2013 article by Time, so it's possible the hourly expense has since increased.
In the aftermath of the visit, some praised Pence and others accused him of orchestrating a high-cost publicity stunt. Whatever the purpose, Pence used his bully pulpit to lash out at the NFL player protests:
“At a 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 tweeted. "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 Colts declined to comment on Pence’s departure. All Colts players stood arm-in-arm during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, just as they did last week ahead of the game in Seattle.
Last month, Trump said NFL team owners should fire players who do not stand up during the national anthem, adding fuel to a controversy that began last year when former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the first of many NFL players to kneel during the anthem.
49ers safety Eric Reid, one of the players who took a knee before Sunday's game, said he was disappointed that a man with as much power to influence change as Pence is among those "confusing the message."
"If I need to say it every time y'all ask me, I will: This is not about the military. This is not about the flag. This is not about the anthem," said Reid, who joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem last season and called Pence's walkout a "political stunt."
"My mother served in the armed forces. Three of my uncles served in the armed forces. ... I have the utmost respect for the military, anthem and the flag. I'll say that every time you interview me. This is about systemic oppression that has been rampant in this country for decades on top of decades ... I would like to believe that (Pence is) such a busy man, that he didn't hear our message, but this has been going on for over a year now, so I know that's not the case."
Though no Colts players chose to kneel during the anthem Sunday, cornerback Rashaan Melvin supported the 49ers who protested, saying they are continuing to bring attention to social injustice.
Melvin added that he was not bothered by Pence's decision to leave, saying that the vice president has as much right to walk out as the players have to kneel.
"(But) hopefully he gets the big picture," Melvin said after the Colts 26-23 overtime victory. "It’s no disrespect to the military. We just want equality for everyone. Women as well. That’s my comment on that."
National civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson called Pence's walkout a dangerous "political stunt" and distraction from more important issues. In an IndyStar interview Sunday night he called on Americans to move on.
"I’ve never seen such intentional, extreme leadership polarization," said Jackson, who once worked for Martin Luther King Jr. "Instead of bridging gaps, they are building walls. They know the issue is not about the flag, they use it to incite fear."
Colts fans did not boo the 49ers who took a knee, but Pence's decision to leave left those in attendance divided.
Colts fan Joseph Pollard said he understood why Pence thought he had to make a political statement, but added he did not believe Pence has taken the time to consider what the protest is truly about.
"(Him leaving) doesn’t bother me, but it tells me exactly the type of person that he would be,” Pollard said. “If he dug deep into his heart and understood the true reason why people did it and don’t just go with the general masses about what everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, that’s un-American.’ It’s not un-American. … The kneel isn’t a protest of being an American, it’s a protest about (social) injustice.”
Fellow fan, Pam Lively, however, supported Pence’s decision. She said she nearly left herself after seeing 49ers players take a knee, but opted to stay because she had already paid for the tickets and she didn't see any Colts players kneel.
Lively said she knew the Colts had knelt at previous games and added that if they do again, she probably won’t attend another game.
“I think that’s good for (Pence). I’m glad he did that,” said Lively. “I believe you take a knee for the Lord and you stand for the anthem. … I was really disappointed in the (49ers).
A local veteran's group said it will "lead by example" and not boycott the NFL, in response to the protests by players. Instead, the Indiana branch of the American Legion said in a statement on Twitter it will present the flag at the Colts vs.Titans game on Nov. 26.
"Kneeling during the National Anthem and not paying respects to the flag is offensive to many in the veterans community, as many have lost brothers and sisters in arms while wearing the flag on our shoulders to defend those at home." said the local chapter, which says it has 84,000 members in Indiana. "However, it is everyone's right to peacefully protest, as those are the freedoms we are sworn to protect as veterans who have served our nation and continue to serve our communities faithfully. We will lead by example, flying the colors of our nation proudly, because it represents all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion or creed."
National spokesperson John Raughter added in an interview with IndyStar: "Certainly Vice President Pence has a right to listen to his conscience and leave the game if he felt that was the thing to do."
Local black activist group Dont Sleep felt Pence's statement turned a blind eye to the real reason behind the protests, which President Dominic Dorsey listed as mass incarceration and police brutality.
"I don't think (Pence) really knows what the reasons for the protests are," Dorsey said. "And if he does, I think it's indicative of the fact ... he wants to ignore the systemic oppression that we face."
Dorsey is calling for honest conversations about racism, both nationwide and in Indianapolis.
"We have people here stateside who need to be protected," he said. "We need Mike Pence, instead of walking off in a huff, to actually stand up and address it."
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