Antonio Cromartie’s time with the Indianapolis Colts was brief—just four games during the 2016-2017 season.
The team released him after Week 4, but Cromartie believes his decision to kneel during the national anthem effectively ended his NFL career.
Cromartie spent 11 seasons in the NFL with the Chargers, Jets, Cardinals and Colts. The four-time Pro Bowler retired from the game in 2018. He appeared on Bleacher Report’s “Untold Stories” segment to discuss his time with the Colts. (Watch the video here)
“[My release] ain’t had nothing to do with my age,” he said. “It ain’t have nothing to do with my style of play. It was because I took a knee.”
Cromartie said he was in a team meeting when then-coach Chuck Pagano told players not to take a knee. According to Cromartie’s recollection, Pagano recognized that players wanted to “do something” to protest social injustice but cautioned them against kneeling.
“‘When we go out on the football field, it’s about football,’” Cromartie said, quoting the former Colts coach.
Cromartie said he turned to some of the other players in the room and responded, “So when it’s about leukemia and your cancer, it’s cool [to take a knee]. But when it’s about police brutality and social injustice, it’s not cool.”
Cromartie said he told Pagano it was “bull****” for the coach to tell players not to protest. Pagano suggested that football was “bigger than what was going on outside.”
“How about respecting the guys that’s getting murdered and killed by police officers?” Cromartie asked. “And not saying that all police officers are bad. But you get some, they get a little power in their head and they abuse the power.”
Cromartie was determined to protest but consulted family members in the military and his grandfather, a Marine veteran, before making his decision.
He said they told him they didn’t necessarily agree with kneeling but told him, “We fought for you to [have that right], to serve that purpose, to go out and protest and have that freedom of speech and everything else.”
When the Colts played the Chargers in Week 3, he took a knee.
He said executives standing behind him told him to get up. When he refused, Cromartie said they tried to block him so no one could see him. It didn’t work—someone had already taken a picture.
During Week 4, the Colts were playing in London. A few representatives told him not to kneel. He was benched in the second half of the game and believes it was because he protested.
Not long after that, he was called to a meeting with Pagano, who told him players in the secondary were getting healthier and the team no longer needed his services. Cromartie believed he was being released for kneeling—and told Pagano as much.
“He’s like, ‘Nah, you know, it’s not that. You know, we just feel like we’re getting healthy.’”
Cromartie said there was no way the team brought him in and paid him just to release him so quickly.
“That don’t even make sense, Chuck,” Cromartie recalled. “But it’s cool. You’re about to get fired anyway.”
The team didn’t fire Pagano–at least not after the season. GM Ryan Grigson was let go, however, and Pagano was a “lame duck” coach under new GM Chris Ballard before he was finally fired a year later.
After the Colts released Cromartie, his NFL career was effectively over; he said he got one workout with the New Orleans Saints in 2017 and retired a year later.
Does he have any regrets about kneeling?
“Don’t regret it at all,” he said. “Why should I? At the end of the day, the only thing we did was give people a voice that didn’t have a voice. And it brought more attention to what really was going on.”