Wake Up

I am writing in response to the spectrum of opinions from active and former NFL players related to an increase in athlete activism, and out of concern over issues of justice and freedom in America. I am particularly concerned about the depth and scope of uninformed and misinformed perspectives, and the abject ignorance displayed by some of my NFL brethren about realities at the confluence of sport, race and society in America. Some of what I have seen and heard is all the more disturbing because, like me, those current and former NFL players in question have spent a substantial portion of their lives in the locker room, in the game. Against an imperative of football culture, against prevailing, if not dominating opinion, they have apparently chosen to be quiet or to turn a blind eye to the political part of sports.

From “racialized” Black images in the sports media — where labeling a “Black QB” as such is still pro forma in American sports journalism — to the “highlighting” of Black transgressions, the message is clear. First and foremost, if you are a Black player, make sure that you do not run afoul of ownership’s sentiments and sensitivities, political or otherwise. The watchword is to always be “acceptable,” notwithstanding what you might have to sacrifice in terms of your own personal integrity, honesty and authenticity. It’s profoundly dismaying for me to see my former player peers — long after they have left the game — kowtow to NFL ultra-conservative, even reactionary, political convention.

Under the circumstances that we face today as a people and as a nation, when WE THE PEOPLE must recognize the difference between right and wrong, when we have an obligation to speak out in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlottesville and more, silence is acceptance, if not collusion. You’re either part of the solution … or you’re a major part of the problem if you are not speaking out against injustice and inequality in America. It has been said that “Silence is evil’s greatest ally.” Our country’s Constitution puts responsibility for forming “a more perfect union” squarely upon “We the People…,” and it doesn’t stipulate “We the People … with the exception of athletes.”

In a democracy, citizenship is participatory; it is not a spectator endeavor. It is a formula for tragedy, and a moral travesty, to see wrongs and choose to look away, or to straddle the fence on critical issues in order to stay in the good graces of certain interests, perhaps with hopes of being rewarded, liked and/or accepted under some delusion of inclusion, while other Black men, women and children are being shot down in the streets of their communities. The only reason that it was Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray and so many others who were killed and not me, or Ray Lewis, or Kordell Stewart, or Michael Vick, or Tim Brown, or LeSean McCoy or another of my “big, Black, frightening” football player brethren is that WE WERE NOT THERE!

Bryan Bennett/The Players' Tribune

My thoughts here were precipitated by Colin Kaepernick and his unique and courageous protest, taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. His protest was to bring attention to race-based injustice and inequality, up to and including extra-judicial homicide under cover of the badge, perpetrated against African Americans and other people of color. We sing a song before every major sporting event that declares this to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” But because the reality is that this freedom is not as equal for some as it is for others, we MUST demonstrate unequivocally that we ARE INDEED the home of the brave by showing the COURAGE and COMMITMENT to the enduring struggle to create that more PERFECT UNION.

“The home of the brave” must be more than just the sweet-sounding words of a song. We must make that phrase a true voicing of who we are as a people, and of what we aspire to become as a nation. And, as individuals participating in the most popular sport in this country, NFL players have a unique platform to do just that.

Additionally, the NFL needs to do a better job of cultivating the relationship between its players and its owners. Owners, the league, the NFLPA and activist players must collaborate on social issues and activism. The league and teams need to treat players like partners rather than property. Throughout the years, players have been repeatedly asked, if not required, to support NFL charities and public interest initiatives on the NFL’s terms. However, the NFL is not so quick to support some causes deemed critically important by players. This is not to denigrate NFL charitable causes, but it is to point out that so many issues that are vitally important to communities represented by a majority of NFL players are too often considered by ownership and front offices to be “out of bounds” for political or business reasons, if not outright unworthy.

How do we determine parameters for what is acceptable, balanced, equitable and fair? The answer is to reach out, get all stakeholders involved and seek common ground. When we’re inclusive, we are likely to come to a better decision, a better place. It has been demonstrated time and time again that those of the so-called millennial generation or Generation Z want to have input on anything and everything that they are involved with as athletes. We need to make inclusivity a priority in today’s NFL. An example of how this inclusiveness can work was when former players came together in one room to talk about end zone celebrations and the league’s reactions to them. Everyone got to have their say. Through player involvement, mutual respect and healthy discussions, there emerged common ground and a basis for mutual agreement.

Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports

Today, Colin Kaepernick is far from alone in his outspokenness and activism. Martellus and Michael Bennett, Seth DeValve, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Devin and Jason McCourty, Richard Sherman and Michael Thomas have also spoken out, and I commend these men. Not only do they understand the significance of this moment in the history of our nation, but they also share political sentiments with business leaders like Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier and the CEOs of Under Armour and Walmart, all of whom stepped down from Donald Trump’s American Manufacturing Council because they believe this country’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of injustice, hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal.

Again, I commend those players, and I hope that, over time, others will join them.

It might not be everyone’s calling to lead a cause, but I want to challenge those NFL players, coaches, and, yes, owners who have been silent, and those who have been making uninformed statements, to be courageous and use their platforms to become part of the solution. It’s not about WHO is right or WHO is wrong, it’s about WHAT is right and WHAT is wrong. Which side are you on?

My brothers and sisters, EVEN RIP VAN WINKLE EVENTUALLY WOKE UP! It’s time to wake up and speak up! #Wakeup #StayWoke