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If you'd entered the stadium a bit late, skipped the anthem in favour of an extra beer in the parking lot or got stuck in the security lines, you would not have known anything was out of the ordinary other than the blazing-hot sun and the Bills beating a decent team.

Pregame, Buffalo's tailgate was in usual form – parking lot upon parking lot, as far as the eye could see, of barbecue and beer and classic-rock blaring out of campers tricked-out in red, white and blue. After kickoff, New Era Field roared as loud as ever, many seats rarely being put to use as fans spent most of the game on their feet. Postgame, in nearby taverns and on radio call-in shows, talk was mostly about how maybe the hard-luck team had finally turned a corner.

But of course, this wasn't just any given Sunday. This was the Sunday that players around the league joined the protest against police violence and institutional racism that Colin Kaepernick started last year – now also a protest against the President of the United States for calling any player who participated a "son of a bitch" who should be fired.

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So if you were inside in time for The Star-Spangled Banner, you saw many of the visiting Denver Broncos and about a dozen Bills take a knee, while other players stood arm in arm. As they did so, you heard their silent demonstration greeted with a cascade of boos, a "USA" chant and a lot of grumbling about what a disgrace these guys were.

And then you saw something strange. As soon as the anthem was over, as debate about league-wide protests continued to overtake NFL broadcasts and social media and news outlets that don't usually cover sports at all, fans who had responded with visceral anger went back to their usual rituals as though nothing had happened.

It was confusing, to sit in the crowd as the switch was flipped on and off. And then it was illuminating.

As the game went on, something clicked about the relationship between the gladiators on the field and the Romans all around me.

I'd gone to Buffalo with a question, and now I had an answer: No, I couldn't in good conscience enjoy the culture and spectacle of an NFL game the way I once did. The reason for that, though, was different than I thought it might be.

More than any other league, the NFL clearly aligned with Trump's ideals

I thought maybe my problem was purely with the league itself.

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I grew up a football fan, and still proudly have a CFL season ticket. But while I previously built Sundays around watching the NFL, last year I almost went out of my way to avoid it.

No North American sports league is perfect, to put it mildly, but the NFL came to strike me as uniquely exploitative. It spent years ignoring or suppressing emerging science that its employees were severely damaging their brains. It plainly couldn't care less about some of its most loyal customers, repeatedly yanking teams away from cities with devoted fan bases because there were more dollars to be earned elsewhere. And, it cynically packaged itself around a type of jingoism which not only venerated the flag and the military, but isolated anyone who dared question the greatness of the American status quo.

Then came the election of Donald Trump. Many NFL owners prominently supported him. And as minority communities worried about what his rise meant for them, the league ostracized Kaepernick – the rare player who dared use his fame to protest racism.

More than any other league, the NFL clearly aligned with Trump's idea of what his country should be. Last year's Super Bowl, a couple of weeks after inauguration day, was the first I've ever chosen to skip.

But despite all that, I wasn't sure whether I'd be equally able to resist the live experience – the one that, as anyone who has been to a game in the right city can attest, is more about the fans than the league as a corporate entity.

I've known and admired that ever since I went for the first time, on the coldest day the Buffalo Bills have ever played football.

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It was a playoff game in the last of the four successive years the Bills made it to the Super Bowl, a 29-23 comeback win over the Raiders, and looking at the summary now I guess it was a pretty good one. But it wasn't the on-field action that stuck in my 14-year-old mind. It was the fans.

I'd never seen a tailgate, so it hadn't occurred to me that anyone would deliberately get there early when the windchill was -36 C. But all along the lone road to the stadium were fans out since the crack of dawn. Some drank so much, fortifying themselves against the cold, they were falling into snowbanks. At the game, that didn't stop them from being louder than any crowd I had been in before – at once chaotic and choreographed, rising in a cacophonous roar when the Bills were on defence, singing every word of the fight song in unison whenever Buffalo scored.

Growing up a sports fan in Toronto, going to games was a relatively passive spectator experience. Here, a couple of hours down the highway, it was so much more. These were traditions that bound together a hard-luck town, celebrated with the passion of people who needed an escape, and something to believe in.

It wasn't quite the same when I later went to games in bigger and richer markets, a New York or a San Francisco. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were more like it. If you wanted a window into a certain type of American resolve, there were few better places than the Rust Belt on game day.

I went back to Buffalo most often, because it's closest to home and its particular version is still the most intense that I've encountered. The last time, four years ago, we brought a little grill, sausages and beer, and joined the tailgate. Still, I was never under the illusion that we were anything other than tourists, finding the quickest and cheapest possible way of experiencing a foreign culture.

So at the outset of this new season, it seemed like the perfect pitch: Why not go down to Buffalo for the first time in a while and see if it changed my view of the NFL in the Trump era, or vice versa?

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I got a ticket for the second home date on the Bills' schedule, the first one I could get to. Then, just before I got on the road, the angle I'd promised my editors got messed up.

Precisely why many players suddenly decided to join the protest started by Kaepernick, following Trump's attack on anyone who did so, is open to debate. The motives of teams that decided to be nominally supportive, or steer players toward milder protests, are all the more so. It quickly started to seem as though they were managing a problem, more than courageously taking a stand.

But the NFL and the President were no longer simpatico. Nor, frankly, did it seem terribly important how much a white guy from Toronto enjoyed the tailgate.

For the record: It was still charming. I could cherry-pick a few things I saw – homophobic jokes about the Broncos directed at visiting fans, the small share of African-Americans in attendance tending to keep to their own corners of parking lots, cops in military gear outside the stadium – to suggest it didn't hold up as well in 2017 as in 1994. But the vast majority of people I encountered were enjoying the sun and the camaraderie and amiably representing their tailgate communities. Not that I was devoting my full attention. I was checking my phone to see what was being reported about the imminent protests. Most fans seemed to have tuned that out, which at the time seemed perfectly benign to me.

Fans able to treat the rest of the game like any other

It could have been much worse, the reaction as players knelt. Nobody was physically threatened; there was no mass walk-out, as Trump had encouraged. Fans exercised their right to free expression, as the players did, then moved on.

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But you can't be in an overwhelmingly white audience jeering at a group of black performers, when those athletes are protesting prejudice faced by others in the African-American community, and not have that define your experience of the event. Or at least, you shouldn't be able to do so, if you take the people on the field seriously.

My first thought, as the disbelieving boos rained down, was that the league had built such a fortress of chest-thumping nationalism around itself, fans were ill-equipped when the walls showed a few cracks.

But that proved to be wrong. It turned out they were perfectly able to treat the rest of the game like any other, as if the demonstration was a minor irritation. The transition was so smooth, in fact, that it was telling of how fans had been conditioned to view the players they were ostensibly there to see.

After the anthem, as the game wore on, certain crowd noises that I'd tuned out in past visits caught my ear. The most jarring were a few half-joking cries of "Kill him!" or "Knock his head off!" when a Broncos ball-carrier found a bit of field. They weren't wishing them serious harm, not really. It still seemed strikingly callous, now that we're starting to have some sense what this game does to players' brains.

But, the subtler sounds, directed toward the home team, may have been more indicative. Even as the stadium began to buzz with the prospect that the Bills might pull off an upset, every minor miscue was greeted with knowing grumbles, verbal eye-rolls, as though the team was about to cost fans yet another rightful victory. It was around the same time that it struck me just how little affinity the audience had for any specific players, how few fan favourites there were.

That has something to do with the Bills' wretched recent history, nearly two decades of forgettable teams failing to make the playoffs. But even on good ones with standout stars, the vast majority of the players are faceless.

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There is no other major sports league in North America that dehumanizes its players the way the NFL does. Baseball is inherently individualistic. The NBA is all about big personalities, who, in recent years, have been actively encouraged to take political and social stands. Hockey comes closest, with a similarly conformist culture (and masks over players' faces), but in a strong NHL market, fourth-line grinders can become beloved household names, if they show some flash of personality.

Partly, it's the sheer number of NFL players who take the field in any given game, many in unglamorous positions where they never touch the ball. But there's another big difference.

The league is the only one where most players' contracts are not guaranteed, which means often teams can easily cut them as soon as they outlive their usefulness, without having to pay the balance of their deals. That's a useful thing for teams to be able to do, because even with players pushing through rapidly accumulating injuries for fear of forfeiting rewards they awaited through lifetimes of playing for free, football takes such a toll on their bodies that the average NFL career is only about three years.

Modern fans of any team in any sport know not to get too attached to any one player, but the NFL's level of transience is extreme. Meanwhile, the identity of the fan base in a town such as Buffalo – with traditions inside and outside the stadium – is stronger and more consistent than in any other league. If a player's culture or value set collide with those of the fans, it's likely to get overwhelmed.

That unusual power balance, in an era of fans paying alarming shares of their income to see millionaires play games, might be refreshing to a point. And then real-world events, such as the ones lately, can make it seem dark.

Fans see a bunch of well-paid (never mind that they're only briefly-paid) athletes coming to town for a season or two, and they can look like interlopers. Without time in most cases to really become part of the city, they're there to provide entertainment, a distraction from real life. The athletes should consider themselves lucky to be there, and not stand out too much or make trouble – by, say, inflicting their views about systemic injustice on people who are really only interested in their football skills.

And now, in the face of the Trump attacks, NFL management – the same folks who have effectively cast Kaepernick out of the league for initiating the protest – suddenly seems to have decided it's okay for players to express themselves politically after all. But the way the league has long conducted its business, the way it has allowed its culture to evolve, has contributed to a fan-player relationship that can't be changed overnight.

"The belief endures … that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude – appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind," Jelani Cobb wrote recently of these protests for The New Yorker, suggesting not much has changed since those who dared take civil-rights stances were labelled "uppity."

I won't claim to have spoken in enough depth to enough Bills fans to know if that's a fair reflection of their thinking. I don't know exactly how many have progressive views on race that were outweighed by what they interpreted, egged on by the league's branding until about a week ago, as disrespect for veterans who fought under the American flag.

All I know is that African-American players were showered with derision for just as long as they used their platform to draw attention to prejudice faced by members of their community, then cheered when they went back to bashing their brains for their audience's edification.

"We did it!" I overheard in the concourse on the way out of the stadium, after the Bills won. It sounded like dialogue from a sports movie that would never be said in real life. On all my past visits, it would have struck me as an endearingly earnest reflection of fans' connection to their team.

But a couple of minutes of "us" and "them," in the time it takes to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, made it ring hollow. I wondered what "we" really meant, and what the players would have thought if they'd heard it.

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