DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — There was a time when Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills was bothered by the backlash over his decision to kneel on the sideline during the national anthem, his way of following Colin Kaepernick's lead and protesting social injustice.
He is no longer worried. If anything, his resolve got stronger.
"We're not going anywhere," Stills said.
Stills was one of two players who kneeled for the anthem in Week 1 around the NFL. Fellow Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson was the other. League-wide, only about 10 players participated in any form of protests. On Thursday, two days removed from meeting with veterans on Sept. 11 and getting lauded by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Stills insisted that his pregame statements are not going away.
"It's not going to change," Stills said. "Activism isn't something you just kind of get involved in and then turn your back on it. Once your eyes are open to some of the things that are happening, you continue to work and try to grow and create change for the rest of your life. It's something I'm committed to forever."
Stills said the Dolphins, who had established a team policy during the offseason saying that players who protested on the field could be subject to a suspension of up to four games, have not tried to stop him from kneeling. The Dolphins' policy and all NFL punishments for protests were put on hold as the league and union negotiate.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase chose the captains for this year's team already, and Stills — just as he was last season — is one. It's a clear sign that Gase has no problems with Stills' stance, or his leadership capability.
"I think he's been the most productive slot receiver the last two years in the NFL," Gase said. "That's nothing new to us."
Stills met with reporters for about 10 minutes Thursday. There was one question about his two touchdown catches against Tennessee in Miami's 27-20 victory.
The rest of the session revolved almost entirely around kneeling, not catching
Stills went to Miami-area VA Hospitals on Tuesday , along with Wilson and a few other members of the Dolphins organization. Some of the patients were moved to tears, and Stills said he spoke with several veterans privately — most of them understanding where his protests are coming from and what they are about.
"This has never been against the military or the flag or the police," Stills said. "And so just for them to have the opportunity, for us to have the conversation, for them to approach me and say that, that meant a bunch."
There are some, however — most notably, President Donald Trump — who insist on describing the kneeling and other similar actions, such as Oakland's Marshawn Lynch staying seated for the anthem, as a protest of the flag.
Trump retweeted a photo on Sunday that showed Stills and Wilson kneeling as the anthem played. In a separate tweet, Trump said NFL television ratings are declining and wrote that if "the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!"
Rubio, R-Florida, took to Twitter this week to applaud Stills .
"You don't have to agree with how or why he has chosen to exercise the 1st Amendment before every game to acknowledge the hours he gives voluntarily, on his day off, to serve his fellow Americans," Rubio tweeted.
Stills said he understands the backlash is not going to stop.
"It's not about being the face or who gets the notoriety for it," Stills said. "It's just what I care about outside of work and what I spend my time doing when I'm not here working for the Dolphins."
Stills first kneeled during the anthem in 2016 and has been vocal discussing racial inequality and other issues. The player protests — started by Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since that season — have become a divisive topic. The debate was refueled earlier this month, when Nike made Kaepernick one of the faces of Nike's 30th anniversary "Just Do It" campaign .
Kaepernick lauded Stills and Wilson for kneeling last weekend. Stills said he would like to see more players protest.
"Obviously, we'd be encouraged to see more guys participating in the protest, but I understand that everyone makes their own decisions," Stills said. "I'll continue doing what I'm doing. It's never been about that. It's not about what other guys are doing. I understand my position and what I'm standing for, what I'm standing up for."
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