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The first NFL Sunday of 2020 arrived, and the games still went on.
The early games saw a variety of gestures — we won’t call them protests, not if the league has at long last given its approval — and some on social media cheered while others of course grumbled.
And the games went on.
Perhaps the most striking gesture came from Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich, who kneeled during the playing of the anthem at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field, while to his left and right players locked arms.
Reich is a white man, and that alone brings privilege in this country. But Reich was also an NFL quarterback, has a Super Bowl ring, and now has one of the most coveted jobs in sports, one of only 32 in the country. He has privilege in spades.
And on Sunday he used it to send a message.
Reich sent a message to his players first and foremost, that he supports them. That he has heard them speak of their experiences with racism, subtle and overt. That their words and anguish haven’t fallen on deaf ears.
He also will now become the target of any vitriol. For almost four years the original intent behind the protests, which began with Colin Kaepernick, has been twisted by bad-faith actors who are far more content to quibble with the method than to discuss the reason for them.
Reich kneeled, so any Colts fans bothered by it will be mad at him, not the Black players who may have gone it alone as we’ve seen time and again.
And perhaps that’s another thing Reich’s kneeling does: it gives white players permission to show their support if perhaps they’ve been hesitant to do so for whatever reason. If their coach will go out on that limb, they know they can too and be fully supported within their organization.
It was appreciated: linebacker Darius Leonard said, “He’s the one who said, ‘it starts with me.’ It definitely means a lot for someone to step up and say, ‘I’m gonna take a stand for you guys.’”
The way the Colts as a team handled it was intentional. A thoughtful statement released shortly after the anthem was played stressed (for the umpteenth time) that it was not a protest of the flag, anthem or men and women who wear the uniforms of U.S. military.
It was a “two-fold symbolic gesture of stepping forward and kneeling. ... Making significant progress to end racism requires all of us to step forward. More specifically, it requires white leaders stepping forward to bring about real change to eliminate discrimination and equal the playing field in all areas, such as housing, education and law enforcement. ...
“[Kneeling] is not a posture of defiance but rather one of humility — taken by the white community — to acknowledge the injustice and inequality that is present, and to find the courage and resolve to make the changes needed.”
After the game Reich told reporters, “We thought it was a unique way to express what needs to be done, where someone like myself, a white leader, would kneel, not out of defiance but out of humility ... we can’t leave things the way they are.”
No, it’s not going to solve anything tomorrow, or maybe even next month.
But the fact of the matter is, nothing in America changes until enough white men, who make up the vast majority of those in power, believe it should. Reich, general manager Chris Ballard and team owner Jim Irsay are acknowledging that, explicitly and in no uncertain terms.
The wording of the team statement made that clear, and it’s impossible to believe it would have gone public worded as such without Irsay’s approval.
For Irsay, it’s progress. A few years ago, Irsay was on record saying that the anthem was the wrong “venue” for protest, sounding a lot like a message board troll when he added, “When the lights go on, we are entertainment. We are being paid to put on a show. There are other places to express yourself.”
George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted Irsay to say, “This has to stop,” and a couple of weeks ago he tweeted, “Of COURSE all lives matter, but the phrase ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ is about unequal treatment faced by BLACK Americans. It does not imply that ONLY black lives matter. E.g., when we say ‘BEAT BREAST CANCER’ it doesn’t mean we don’t care about beating leukemia.”
Coming from an NFL team owner, as at least one of his cohort is still going on about “grace” and being more concerned with the minority of fans who disagree with the idea, it was a surprising and incredibly welcome sentiment.
The repeated emphasis on white people in the Colts’ statement will make many who see it uncomfortable, and that’s the point. It’s not the job of Black Americans to fix American racism. We’ve kneeled, marched, screamed, cried, and our ancestors have given their lives, and we’re still experiencing racism in nearly all facets of life.
It takes white men like Reich, Ballard and Irsay to stand up and acknowledge that the status quo is wrong, and use their privilege and influence to make things more equitable. What these men do after Sunday can matter far more than a gesture.
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