In George Iloka’s last season with the Cincinnati Bengals, protesting racial injustice in the United States took the NFL by storm. Players kneeling during the national anthem became a polarizing topic that everyone in America knew about, even the non-sports fans.
No one on the Bengals ended up kneeling—during that season or at all in the last four years—but players such as Iloka wanted to do so.
In an exclusive interview with WLWT’s Elise Jesse, Iloka and other current and former Bengals revealed that the team decided to stand united during the anthem before their Week 3 matchup against the Green Bay Packers that season. The decision was reached during a player meeting leading up to the game, and it went against Iloka’s heart, among others.
“A lot of people, myself in particular, wanted to kneel,” Iloka said. “It was a big issue and that was weighing heavily on my heart, it was weighing heavy on my mind, and obviously it was weighing heavy on a lot of people’s hearts and minds across the NFL, and across the nation particularly with African Americans. It wasn’t just me that felt some kind away about that.”
The player meeting that had decided this, according to Iloka, involved about half of the roster, and it did not sit well for the veteran safety at the time. The majority that went against Iloka was the majority that team owner and president Mike Brown apparently resided with as well.
An anonymous player told Jesse that Brown then met with players before the game and was adamant against the peaceful protest in fear of fan backlash.
“It was the first meeting on a Saturday night that Mr. Brown had ever spoken or been a part of,” that player said.
Another player, who spoke with me off the record, echoed Iloka’s account of the emergency team meeting when Cincinnati Bengals owner, Mike Brown, made a blunt request.
“He pretty much says, ‘I don’t want you guys kneeling.’ He said our fans will crush us.”
Other players noticed that Mike Brown’s words carried the weight of an emotional tone.
“He just begged, like really begged. That was my first time seeing or hearing anything like that — very emotional. That was my only time seeing that it was different. The bottom line is that he was begging us, please do not kneel. He didn’t want the backfire that was going to come from it.”
Jesse also learned that a player felt that if he had knelt after Brown’s comments, he “would not expect to get a good contract offer the following year.” Iloka felt the need to address Brown separately along with a few other players, but Brown “wasn’t trying to hear it.”
The following year in 2018, the Bengals traded for Cordy Glenn and signed Preston Brown as a free agent; both players previously played for the Buffalo Bills. Brown expressed regret towards Jesse about not kneeling during the 2017 season, but explained how that impacted his eventually signing with Cincinnati.
“If I were to take a knee that day, I definitely wouldn’t have played for the Bengals,” he said. “It was in OTAs or something like that, we had a meeting of like 20 guys, and they asked me and Cordy (Glenn) because we came from Buffalo where guys had taken a knee, and they said ‘We are not going to do that here. We don’t need that attention. We don’t need that type of display of protest,’ and that was something that was weird to me.”
Iloka, Brown, and Glenn are all off of the team now, for reasons unique to each of them. They’re now led by rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, who has made his stance against systemic racism and police brutality.
For what it’s worth, since the 2017 season, the Bengals haven’t finished above 30th in home attendance percentage.