The time for words is over.
But as we’re seeing from a significant number of NFL teams, even empty words are a bridge too far.
As of this writing, 16 teams had posted at minimum a statement, either under the franchise logo or with the owner’s name attached, to their social media channels. They’re all different, but generally they condemn the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and pledge to go beyond words to offer action.
Some, like Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson, wrote about actionable steps they’re taking immediately: Bisciotti is donating $1 million, with players deciding how and where the money should be distributed; Benson, who also owns the New Orleans Pelicans, announced the formation of a Social Justice Leadership coalition with players from both teams.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his father’s history as an NFL ownership renegade, the Las Vegas Raiders statement signed by Mark Davis said in part, “To be honest I’m surprised that the resulting violence hasn’t been much worse.”
It’s telling that half of the league’s teams have felt moved enough by the deep pain and desperation shown by so many black Americans in recent days in a league where over two-thirds of players are black.
On Saturday, the NFL released a statement that was credited to commissioner Roger Goodell. It was mostly word salad and certainly eye-rolling for those of us old enough to remember what the league did to Colin Kaepernick, whose silent protest was sparked by killings just like Floyd’s.
Setting that aside for another day, Goodell’s statement and the silence of so many teams is a reminder: While the commissioner may have something of a moral conscience, given that there are reports he is bothered by the lack of black head coaches and general managers in the league, the fact remains that Goodell can’t truly use the power of the NFL without the backing of those who pay his salary — team owners.
Given their statements, we assume some owners would be on board.
Given their silence, we assume most are not.
It’s striking to see where statements have and haven’t come from. The Pittsburgh Steelers, whose late owner Dan Rooney was a chairman of the league’s diversity committee, have not issued one. Owner Jeff Lurie and the Philadelphia Eagles, who have in the past been supportive of players’ efforts to work for equity in justice, stayed silent for a week before releasing a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Members of the New England Patriots have been some of the most active in terms of putting the time in to affect change in Massachusetts, at times with the help of team owner Robert Kraft and president Jonathan Kraft. But the Patriots too have said nothing, even after we reached out on Monday night asking if there would be a statement coming.
Players are noticing too. In a Twitter thread directed to the NFL, Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks asked, “What actual steps are you taking to support the fight for justice and [systemic] reform? Your statement said nothing. Your league is built on black athletes ... You can’t bring in people to teach us how we should interact with police but not work towards changing the behavior of the police themselves. Silence will not make this go away.”
The fact is, the NFL is uniquely positioned to be a force for good right now. All but two team owners are wealthy white people (Shad Khan and his Jacksonville Jaguars are one of the teams still silent, while Kim Pegula and her Buffalo Bills have issued a statement), with the money, connections and influence to guide local, state and even federal leaders toward change.
The University of Minnesota said it will no longer contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for services at large events, including football games, after George Floyd’s death. What if the Wilf family, which owns the Vikings, made the same decision instead of a brief, carefully worded statement saying “everyone in our community deserves the right to feel protected and safe”?
Game-day contracts and other perks — the Vikings have invited police to training camp, where they got player access and autographs — are a benefit for police in the Minneapolis area, not a right. If the Wilfs truly want residents in the community to feel protected and safe, they can pull their money until local departments vow changes and implement actions like more community oversight and limiting the use of force.
Hendricks is right when he says silence won’t make this go away. All over this country, in cities where NFL teams play and dozens more where they don’t, people are protesting police brutality, begging for those charged with protecting and serving to do so without getting away with wantonly killing citizens, a far higher percentage of them black and brown, in situations where lethal force was unnecessary.
It’s likely nearly every black NFL player has at least one story, and probably more, of being racially profiled by police or discriminated against by a fellow American, and not just in the days before they became professional athletes. Outside of the walls of their team facilities, they are still black men, and neither money, Pro Bowl berths nor the vaunted NFL shield can protect them from a bigoted system.
Do team owners spend any time talking to these men? Do they ever look these players in their eyes and ask them about their experiences beyond their significant others and children and tackle stats? Have they ever heard and processed the fear many black people have when they see police lights in the rearview mirror, the racing heartbeat and thoughts that a basic traffic stop for, say, not adequately stopping at a stop sign can result in you having a gun pointed in your face?
Do these team owners think this is OK?
Even if they don’t look at players as fully formed human beings, are they OK with their employees, who help keep profits rolling in, at risk like this? Will it take Cowboys rookie CeeDee Lamb getting repeatedly tased over parking in a handicapped spot a la the Bucks’ Sterling Brown before Dallas owner Jerry Jones is moved to say anything, let alone be moved to push for action?
Since it’s all the rage these days to use the words of Martin Luther King Jr., let’s pull out these: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” At this point, not only are players taking note of what team owners doing and not doing, the rest of us are too.
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