Alden Gonzalez, ESPN Staff Writer 326d

Despite close ties to military, Andrew Whitworth respects right to kneel

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- A massive gravestone is tattooed on the back of 6-foot-7, 333-pound Andrew Whitworth, the Los Angeles Rams left tackle who is in his 12th NFL season. It bares the name of Lee Deal, Whitworth's best friend and college roommate. Deal died in Iraq in 2006, the year Whitworth was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals, while serving in the Navy. Deal comes to Whitworth's mind every time the national anthem plays. He'll point to the sky, and he'll think about the impact Deal had on his life.

Whitworth will continue to stand for the anthem, but he won't knock other NFL players for kneeling.

He doesn't believe Deal would, either.

"I think Lee comes from the same place I do -- that he didn’t fight for one kind of mentality or person," Whitworth said. "He fought for freedom, and he fought for the ability for Americans to enjoy their daily lives and to all have the same experience."

The movement that began with Colin Kaepernick nearly 13 months ago reached new heights on Sunday. Two days earlier, during a political rally in Alabama, President Donald Trump criticized NFL players who protested during the anthem and suggested that team owners should fire them.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Trump's comments "divisive," and several owners -- including Rams owner Stan Kroenke -- issued statements in support of their players by Saturday night. On Sunday, every team participated in some form of demonstration -- by standing arm-in-arm, kneeling, raising a fist or even staying in the locker room during the anthem. On Monday, the Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones took a collective knee before the anthem, then stood with locked arms when during it.

The Rams played on Thursday and thus didn't take part in any of the demonstrations, but first-year head coach Sean McVay addressed the situation during Monday's team meeting.

Later, inside linebacker Alec Ogletree admitted something.

"I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of the situation when it first came about, so it was kind of hard for me to go either way on it," Ogletree said. "Given what just happened, for me personally, it definitely drives me to want to be more involved in the movement."

Whitworth was active on social media over the weekend, mostly by retweeting posts that supported the players' right to protest.

He called Trump's message "immature and unnecessary" and hopes Americans "find a way to unify each other."

"Leadership is a position where you want to create the opportunity to inspire people to walk along beside you, not listen to what you say," Whitworth said. "In no way can you describe to me how that would inspire someone to want to walk beside you. It would only inspire division."

Whitworth attended high school with Deal and was a college roommate with him at LSU. Deal's death inspired two other close friends to join the Navy. Whitworth, 35, says he respects the opinion of those who consider it disrespectful to kneel during the anthem, but also respects the opinion of those who say their demonstrations are related to racial inequality and are not meant as a slight toward those who served.

"It's our country," Whitworth said. "I have a lot of pride in it and the flag and what that’s about and all the people who fought for it. But I also firmly believe that those people fought for freedom. Freedom is a part of protest as well.

"I think that’s a tough line. I think for a lot of people, it’s obviously a very emotional thing. It’s obviously something that hurts, for both sides. But I just think that at the end of the day, unity and love are the most powerful things in the world. Whatever gets us to that point, I’m all for."

The Rams haven't planned a group demonstration for Sunday's game, which will take place on the road against the Cowboys. Robert Quinn has been raising his right fist in the air for every game since last season's opener. Over the past two weeks, he has been joined by punter Johnny Hekker, who has put his right arm on Quinn's back as a sign of support.

Quinn hasn't asked other players to support him.

"I’ve been doing it by myself for this long" Quinn said. "Is it great to have? Yes. But I’m not doing this for a show. It’s a message to be sent. I haven’t done this one week after Kaepernick did it. I’ve been continuing to do it. It’s a message and something I believe in. It’s not a distraction for this team. If a guy wants to ask me about it, I’ll tell him how I feel. But I’m not trying to make it a distraction. If you believe in something, I shouldn’t have to bring it up to you."

Whitworth is hoping for more compassion and understanding after a divisive weekend.

"People fought hard for freedoms; they didn’t fight hard for one mentality," Whitworth said. "If you really talk about what the country was founded on, and what those people are protecting who went to war and fought these wars and give us our freedoms and are fighting for our freedoms, I think you have to really ask yourself what is involved in freedom."

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