I am a 6-foot-tall, 300-pound African American. I usually wear a goatee, if not a full-on beard. If a police officer finds me in any way physically intimidating during a routine traffic stop, I’m very aware that things could go badly very quickly.
I’ve had to teach my children — two daughters and a son — how to conduct themselves when interacting with the police, especially a white male officer. Don’t talk back. Ever. Don’t ask for their badge number. Make no sudden movements. You speak slowly, respectfully and try your best to stick to seven words: “Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you, sir.” Even if you feel you’re being wronged, stay quiet and take it. Maybe it will diffuse the situation. So that, God willing, you can come home to us.
It’s the same talk my parents had with me when I was growing up.
It is soul-killing.
This is what former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was trying to shine a light on when he began his on-field protests on Aug. 26, 2016. But when Kaepernick was kneeling on the sideline during the national anthem to shout to the world about the ills of systemic racism and police brutality, the NFL was not willing to hear his message.
Since then, it has taken even more killings, more civil unrest and the league’s own players to speak out for the NFL to react. The senseless brutality of George Floyd’s death — in which a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes — has opened the eyes, ears and hearts of people around the world. It has sparked a revolution, with 12 consecutive days (and counting) of global protests.
And on Friday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a video message he and the league are finally ready to listen. While Goodell did not address Kaepernick specifically, he did address some of the things the former quarterback was advocating for, including that the NFL acknowledges and believes black lives matter.
That is outstanding progress in a short period of time.
But it’s a long way from where we need to go.
Commissioner Roger Goodell posts a message admitting the league’s fault in not listening to players sooner and encouraging all to speak out and peacefully protest.
Hear me out, NFL
For me, as a senior writer for ESPN, the NFL’s commitment to change has to go well beyond welcome words in a video message. Every time I hear about another unarmed black person being beaten or killed because of the color of their skin, it strikes a personal chord within me.
I grew up watching the NFL. As a child, living in Ohio, I used to bond with my father watching Cincinnati Bengals games. As an adult, living in Connecticut, I stay connected with friends and family through fantasy football leagues, and I write about the NFL in a weekly column for ESPN.
It pains me to see a sport that has been such a huge part of my life become something so many in my culture have disconnected from. That so many of us almost feel guilty supporting.
I am overjoyed that the NFL is finally ready to work with African Americans for racial equality. But we need them to produce specific action statements, with goals and consequences, to help effect these changes. Here are a few ideas for the NFL to start with (from small to large):
Incorporate protest and awareness time into the official structure of each NFL game. The league should institute a minute-long moment of silence immediately after the playing of the national anthem in which players could exercise their options to kneel, raise fists or make any gesture they want in support of whatever cause they want. This would allow players the platform to communicate directly with the people, while side-stepping any lingering hard feelings about kneeling during the anthem. Teams could also use this time to play educational videos on racial equality. And if the NFL really wanted to lean into it, it could make it an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence in honor of Floyd on special occasions, such as during the Super Bowl.
Stephen A. Smith suggests that diversity should be prioritized in the NFL amid discussions of racial justice.
Set up a diversity council for each NFL team. The league continues to struggle with a lack of diversity among its hiring of coaches and front-office staff — three of 32 teams have black head coaches and two have black general managers, all overseeing a league composed of 70% black players — and the Rooney Rule hasn’t solved the problem. How about establishing a diversity council, an initiative that goes beyond many of the NFL teams’ own social justice funds, that would advocate for minority rights as a committee within the governing hierarchy of the league? Each team could have a front-office position that works with that council year-round to ensure minority candidates are recommended and given consideration. Unlike the Rooney Rule, which has each team policing its job search and intentions privately, this council would make each hiring decision transparent and inclusive. Also, at the end of each season, the council could give grades on inclusivity (similar to the grades the NAACP gives to politicians) that would become a part of each team’s public record.
Elevate the impact work with the Players Coalition and reconnect with Kaepernick. The Players Coalition, co-founded in 2017 by former wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, has the stated goal of “Making an impact on Social Justice and Racial Equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education and allocation of resources.” In November 2017, the NFL agreed to partner with the Players Coalition and committed $89 million to social justice causes. This is admirable. But as Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary and NFL executive vice president of communications and public affairs, wrote last week in a column for CNN: “It was not enough just to spend money to make progress on the issue of racial disparities. That is crucial, but so are symbols that reflect that attempt at progress — and also the failure to reach it. And Colin Kaepernick became the symbol of black men being treated differently than white men in America.”
The NFL should increase its long-term commitment and the publicity and marketing of the work that the Players Coalition is doing, to help it become a ubiquitous part of the NFL’s brand. Likewise, the NFL should repair its relationship with Kaepernick and work with him again — ideally, as both a quarterback and an activist. His return to the NFL would speak volumes about the sincerity of Goodell’s apology and the league’s commitment to change.
Lobby to outlaw the tools — and loopholes — of police brutality. Major sports leagues such as the NFL are multibillion-dollar entities with large, vital relationships across many states and big cities. As such, they hold unique weight within our society to affect change. When Arizona refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1991, the NFL moved the Super Bowl to Los Angeles. In 1992, Arizona recognized MLK Day, and in 1996 played host to the Super Bowl.
The NFL has the clout to build a powerful lobby against police brutality that could effect change on national, state and local levels. For example, in the wake of Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and more than a dozen law enforcement agencies in California have agreed to ban chokeholds. That’s great, but it affects portions of two states (for now). An NFL police brutality lobby could work to have chokeholds similarly banned in every U.S. city. In addition, there needs to be legal consequences if this rule is broken. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by an illegal chokehold, yet the offending officer never faced criminal charges.
Howard Bryant joins SportsCenter to discuss Colin Kaepernick and the impact his return to the NFL would have on the league.
The path forward
Four years ago, I sat down at a social gathering with a police detective and had a long talk about police brutality. The conversation came in the aftermath of the deaths of two other unarmed black men at the hands of police within hours of each other on July 5 and July 6, Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. The detective helped me understand, in general, if I saw myself in the victims, he was able to see himself in the police officers — officers he felt were often unjustly tried in public.
I appreciated his candor and point of view, as well as his willingness to have the conversation. Communication and listening can build the bridges that we need to effect societal changes. He even, much like Goodell did on Friday, admitted his eyes had been opened. The detective believed things would be different and the officers involved in the killings of Castile and Sterling would face jail time.
They did not.
And that is why black parents continue to have “The Talk.” It goes against the rights we’re all supposed to enjoy, to teach our children not to stand up for themselves. But as a parent, I care about them coming home safely more than I care about their pride. A part of me dies inside to even write this down. And another part of me quivers in fear, because even though we have given them clear instruction, there’s no guarantee they’ll make it home.
And that is why, despite this early progress, we must continue to protest. Continue to push. To ensure that allies like the NFL, if Goodell stays true to his pledge, continue to protest with us and work with us to effect real, lasting change.
We’re listening, NFL and Roger Goodell.
Now show us.
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