On the second of three days without NBA playoff games, some 100 hours after police shot Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, and exactly two weeks before the NFL plans to kick off its 2020 season, at least nine of the league’s 32 teams did not practice. Some things, those NFL teams decided, were more important than football. College football players are marching in protest. Pros held intimate, team-wide discussions on racial injustice.
“We’re tired of dealing with systematic oppression,” Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said Thursday. “We’re tired of dealing with excessive force. We’re tired of seeing Black men and women die in situations where they should be walking home and spending the night with their families.”
Tannehill stood with teammates behind him. “We stand up here, united, demanding change,” he concluded.
Across the country, inside and outside the league, many wondered: What else might they do to demand it?
Will NFL players, at some point, demonstrate similarly?
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson told a Seattle radio station Friday that if games were scheduled this week, he would not have played. “As a team,” he said, “we’re definitely discussing what do we do next.”
On Thursday, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, was asked about the possibility. He told ESPN Radio: “If we’re not expecting this is going to happen, then we’re not living in reality.”
Veteran NFL reporter Jim Trotter tweeted that “a few prominent Black players are telling me they want to sit out a game to make their feelings felt & force change/action. They are tired, frustrated and emotional.”
Domonique Foxworth, a former president of the NFL Players Association, told The Ringer: “I think it’s certainly on the table for players to decide to do something like that. And I think it’s almost inevitable if another person is shot or killed by police officers. I think it’s more likely than not that that week, players won’t show up.”
Dr. Harry Edwards expects it, too. “The chances are very good that [the movement] will spread to other leagues, including the NFL,” he told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday.
Edwards has been organizing and advocating for athlete activism since the 1960s. He engineered a boycott of, and then protests during, the 1968 Olympics. He has been advising and analyzing protests since.
When asked how NFL players should approach this situation, he flipped it on its head.
“I wouldn’t have any advice for the players at this point,” he said. “But I would have advice for Roger [Goodell] and the owners: Be proactive, have a plan, do not wait until this thing blows up in your face.”
What the NFL should do
Edwards said he emailed the NFL to make this point. His message, essentially, is this: The NBA strike brought players, league executives and team owners to a virtual negotiating table on Thursday, to figure out how they could work together to fight systemic injustice. NFL franchise owners, Edwards argued, should come to the table willingly, before players feel a strike is necessary to force their hands.
“Right. Now,” Edwards said, emphatically. “Now’s the time to begin that conversation.”
It’s unclear what the likelihood of a walkout is.
“They’re looking for your replacement here at all times,” Conley said. “And they will replace you, and the show will go on without you. Until the people in the NFL who are irreplaceable decide that they’re gonna step back, and they’re gonna hang it up for a week, two weeks, whatever it may be, I don’t foresee [a walkout] happening. I think you have great leaders in this league, you have guys who have a voice, and who want to be heard, and who are willing to make that sacrifice. I believe I’m one of them. But until those figures who are the face of the league decide that, and people rally behind them, I don’t think you see that.”
Edwards, though, explained that “a Rayshard Brooks-, Jacob Blake-, George Floyd-, Breonna Taylor-type killing, coincident with the opening week of NFL football,” could change things. Perhaps the current storm will subside by Sept. 10. But it’s “already this side of the sports-political horizon,” Edwards explained. “It’s just a matter of time of when that [storm] comes ashore.
“If there’s a killing of somebody Black by a cop at the time that these games are scheduled, do not be surprised if you see athletes say, ‘We’re not coming out. We’re gonna boycott this one.’ ”
The purpose of a strike, however, ultimately crystallizes into demands, or what Edwards calls a “strategic plan” for enacting change. In the NBA, team owners listened to players and on Friday committed to three central initiatives. In the NFL, Baltimore Ravens players have already released several specific demands. Stills, who has been active in this space for years, has been compiling his own list of suggestions.
The league has, over the years, made commitments to initiatives players have pushed. In June, it said it was “growing our social justice efforts through a 10-year total $250 million fund to combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”
Of course, the franchise owners can do more.
“They can pick up the telephone and call a governor, and a governor will pick up,” Edwards explained. “They can call the attorney general, and the attorney general will pick up. They can call the mayor, and the police chief of a local town, and then have one of the athletes go with them to talk about these issues that we have to clean up. In other words, these are people that have resources that they can leverage, to get this situation [fixed].”
Vincent, the NFL EVP and a former player, was asked by fellow former player Keyshawn Johnson about those team owners.
“How difficult is it,” Johnson said, “to get them to understand, we really need their power and influence to help?”
“Many are there, Key. And I must say, in full transparency, many are not, because they think it’s a disruption of the business,” Vincent said in an emotional interview. “We as Black men, we’re not asking for anything that they’re not looking for for their children and families. So that discussion, it can’t be any clearer. When you watch the video of eight minutes and 46 seconds, of a knee on somebody’s neck, who’s handcuffed, that should not be a dispute.” His voice began breaking as he spoke.
“Now, how do we address this together?” Vincent continued. “We need your influence as an owner, we need you to bridge the gap for us. We need you to talk to the [district attorney]. We need to have conversations with your local [and] state officials. We need you to address police reform.”
Edwards’ point to the team owners is that they can choose to engage with players and initiate those conversations now. If they don’t, Edwards said, “they’re going to risk hearing from the players [in other ways].”
“One way or another, they’re going to have to deal with this,” Edwards explained. “The issue is, can we deal with it in a reasoned, rational way?”
Or will they wait for the metaphorical storm? Which, as Edwards said, “is this side of the sports-political horizon. We can see it coming, and just about predict landfall given the almost-certainty that somebody else is going to be shot and killed.”
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