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For moment when NFL didn’t stick to sports, 3 rare voices emerge in social movement discussion

Eric Adelson
Columnist

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Several years ago, Josh McCown was at a Bible study with some fellow NFL players when a few of the African-Americans in the room started a conversation about race. They described the feeling of being followed around in a mall. They discussed what it’s like to be tailed by police for no reason. It struck McCown that these are conversations he never has to have, because he is white.

“They’re running a race with a weighted vest on,” he thought.

The New York Jets quarterback relayed this story Friday at a forum put together by the non-profit RISE – Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, started in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Most of the conversation was about a 2017 NFL season filled with debate and division, and McCown was one of the most passionate speakers.

“As a white man in America,” he said, “to not acknowledge your path is not the same as another is very irresponsible.”

Jets quarterback Josh McCown spoke with candor from his view on the social movement occurring within the NFL. (Getty Images)

It’s a powerful sentiment and not one a lot of people have heard from McCown. Colin Kaepernick started a historic movement when he sat for the national anthem in August of 2016, but Kaepernick’s football career is likely over. Others like the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and former player Anquan Boldin have been tireless in their efforts to pick up the baton through charity or civic engagement or both. But every player’s moment in the NFL sun is short, and the future of this movement will rely on other voices joining the choir.

McCown’s role is significant, as is the Eagles’ Chris Long, in part because they are white men showing solidarity with an African-American cause. “They exemplified the brotherhood,” said NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent on Friday. “This is not a catch-all subject. This was not about all people. This was about, in particular, black boys. When you are a minority speaking up in that room, that’s true leadership.”

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There were other “minority” testimonials Friday, in front of what was a largely minority audience. Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve, who got headlines during the preseason when he kneeled with his teammates, spoke about the black crime rate. He asked rhetorically if there is some endemic difference that makes African-Americans more likely than whites to commit crimes. He said his answer is no, and therefore there must be systemic racism that must be confronted.

It wasn’t only players speaking out. Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli also sat on a panel. He told of the time when his elementary school in New York State hired its first black teacher and he found himself in her class. He heard adults throughout town complaining about her, using racist terms and epithets, and he walked into her classroom with trepidation. “I met a woman who loved me,” Pioli said, choking back tears.

The lesson he learned was this: “A lot of the teachers and adults in my community were teaching the wrong things.”

It’s not that McCown and DeValve and Pioli suddenly decided to be socially aware; it’s more that the national discussion of these topics has too often veered into something tangential: the patriotism issue, or the anthem issue, or the distraction issue.

“We made a mistake by addressing the anthem and the military part of it,” said Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas. “We should have kept it about systemic oppression. Never allow them to hijack that conversation.”

“Them” is a lot of different groups, whether outright opponents of the protests or certain media pundits or the President of the United States. Kaepernick was very clear about his motives: addressing police brutality and racial inequality. But the ensuing conversation (especially on TV) was rarely about those issues specifically. How often did the conversation delve into bail reform or apartheid schools as a part of this discussion?

In fairness, most sportswriters are assigned to cover games. And their readers want that coverage. Lengthy interviews with Pioli or McCown don’t happen often, and the football world wants to know which college stars will be drafted or which receivers will be targeted. The gift of the NFL platform is also the curse: people want to hear from you, but they mostly want to hear from you about football. And there’s a chance that if they don’t like what you have to say about other topics, they’ll tune out completely.

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That is no reason for players to be silent. And it is no reason for the rest of us to stop listening. The NFL community is full of people with compelling stories who can challenge us. Former New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings spoke Friday about the time he went to a friend’s house for dinner during high school and he saw KKK symbols in her home. Pioli was on the panel with Jennings as he told this story, and it was clear he was moved by it. That was the point of the forum and the rare benefit of such a diverse league: too often in American society we hear the stories of those who have backgrounds like ours; sports allow a mash-up of classes and races and faiths and experiences. That’s part of why McCown, a native of a small town in East Texas, became privy to a more complex way of thinking.

Only a few years ago, the national football conversation rarely traveled far from the field. “Stick to sports” was more or less a way of life. The Kaepernicks and Boldins and Jenkinses have brought us forward into a new and necessary discussion. After the Super Bowl and in the coming offseason, we will see if that discussion expands, idles or retreats from view.

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