Some critics of Miami Dolphins’ kneelers don’t have a leg to stand on

Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas huddles with kids from the Boys and Girls Club in Fort Pierce, Florida on Sept. 13, 2016. Thomas attended the community event in Fort Pierce, as he did in 2015, when he was given the key to the city. The event brings kids and police together, which is one of his priorities. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

It was a hot-button issue from the start, with a lifespan of infinity.

When four members of the Dolphins kneeled during the national anthem in the season-opener, that’s all a healthy segment of the populace needed to see.

And I get that.

It was disrespectful of the flag, of the military, of the country — doubly so, since it occurred on Sept. 11 — according to perception that we now know includes some of the very men standing at attention beside them, also in Miami Dolphins uniforms.

All valid criticism, since their act of protest throughout the season coincided with those two minutes when the flag is front and center and our national anthem is sung. If the kneeling Dolphins are ashamed of their country, their country has a right to be ashamed of them.

But let’s keep this within reason.

Dolphins players Kenny Stills (left) and Michael Thomas discuss social issues with students at their town hall meeting at Nova Southeastern University on Monday night. (Hal Habib / The Palm Beach Post)

Whenever the issue is brought up, it solicits a predictable wave of passion falling into two distinct categories:

• Category I: Well, if they’re so worked up about social injustice, they should do something about it! (We’ll include the exclamation points but let you envision the requisite amount of all-caps words.)

• Category II: They should be concentrating on football!

This is where a truly objective observer should, well, throw a flag.

The latest round of attention on the issue ironically was spurred by a town hall meeting Monday night in which defensive back Michael Thomas and receiver Kenny Stills outlined for the first time how deep the divide was in the locker room as players tried to find common ground upon which to make a statement as a team. Stills and Thomas said they remain taken aback by the degree to which some teammates turned a deaf ear.

The fact that the setting last week was a town hall with area high school students who wanted to be heard … all that was lost on those in the do-something-about-it camp. These critics would be surprised to learn that when they criticize Stills and Thomas for kneeling rather than acting, they are targeting what may be the Dolphins’ two most active players in the community.

At the end of last season, Stills was awarded the Nat Moore Community Service Award as voted on by the players. Despite covering the team on a regular basis, it was a bit of a surprise pick to me, which is precisely the way Stills likes it. He purposely avoids cameras and microphones during community-service appearances. The only attention he cares about during those times is the attention he can devote to the needy.

The fact Stills (or anyone) beat out Thomas for the honor is an accomplishment. In 2015 he was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award on Capitol Hill. Two days after that first kneel, it was a Tuesday, the players’ day off. Except Thomas doesn’t take Tuesdays off; he spends them in the community. On that particular Tuesday, he hopped in his car and drove to Fort Pierce, a community he had no prior ties to before it somehow embraced him a year ago. He spent the entire day with underprivileged kids, meeting with the mayor and talking with police to find ways to bridge gaps.

Receiver Kenny Stills (10), celebrating with Ryan Tannehill (17) and Jarvis Landry (14) after scoring the winning touchdown against Buffalo in October, led the Dolphins with nine touchdowns in 2016. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

Thomas recalls what happened as he left that his 2015 visit. He said he’d be back next year, but a sad boy said he knew Thomas would never return. The boy’s eyes lit up at their reunion, not just because Thomas had kept his word, but brought a signed jersey for the boy.

Thomas has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Haiti to seek solutions for the water crisis in remote areas. It was his first trip there, not his last, and oh yes, along the way he decided to sponsor a 15-year-old girl so she could return to school following Hurricane Matthew, which destroyed her family’s house.

While we’re at this hurricane theme, let’s consider Category II — that Stills and Thomas aren’t focusing on football. How, then, to explain Stills leading the Dolphins with both a 17.3 average per reception and nine touchdowns? Or Thomas, named special teams captain, tying for the NFL lead with 19 tackles on special teams?

Or both men being rewarded with raises by the organization?

None of this is to excuse Stills, Thomas and the departed Jelani Jenkins and Arian Foster for kneeling during the anthem. Frankly, it’s not something I could do. If an act of protest is designed to send a message, and the message is easily misconstrued, perhaps it’s not the best course of action. Strange thing is, the crux of the problem — some police are too trigger-happy — is one we all agree is horrific.

I struggle with what that the best protest method is. Colin Kaepernick’s initial kneel transcended football, elevating the debate to the cover of Time. If he’d called a news conference instead? No one outside of San Francisco would have ever known. Also, I’m not African-American, so my ability to play devil’s advocate only goes so far.

Thomas and Stills say they’re undecided on what they’ll do next year. As for you, if you’re turned off by professional football players kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” feel free to turn off your TV.

Just don’t say these guys don’t care about their craft or their community.

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