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From an inspiring Saints fan to Roger Goodell, leadership can take many forms

This week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell opened his office to Annie Apple, and the two dug into an emotional, layered issue.

None of us choose our color or ethnicity. The one thing we can’t control is the one thing by which we’re often judged.  A week after the election and it seems our country is more divided than ever. We’re too busy judging each other to even listen, nor seek to understand. If you voted for Trump, you’re a racist. If you voted for Hillary, you’re evil. Social media has become a cesspool of political filth and hate. I’d rather sunbathe in the battlefields of Afghanistan than go on Facebook. 

When it comes to sports and politics, less is more, as athletes are often told to just shut up and play football or shut up and play basketball, as if their occupation somehow diminishes their role as a citizen. Some top college football coaches chose not to discuss the election, as Nick Saban reportedly said he didn’t know it was Election Day. The leader of the top college football team in the country didn’t know the day the country chose its new president, even though college is the time of free expression, political awareness and even activism. Urban Meyer said he had “no reaction” on the election. At first you’re like, 'how can you have no reaction?' Then you realize that with all the inflammable political discourse and venom on social media, they chose not to become part of the divisiveness. I can understand why perhaps both coaches chose to bypass the issue publicly. No matter what side you’re on, you face judgment and backlash. Some have chosen to just not discuss it. Agree or not, I respect it. 

Being 21, Black Eli voted for the first time in a presidential election. I’ve never told my children who to vote for. I just always encouraged them to vote because it’s their responsibility as citizens. It’s the one thing our country asks that we must do. Hearing more reports of players who didn’t vote, and reaction from the public only illustrated the one thing politics and sports have in common: crazy fan bases.

During the election cycle, we heard analysis of who does or doesn’t have the temperament to lead. I’m not sure there is one ideal leadership temperament but I do know in these times, I respect and cherish anyone with the ability to be even-keeled. That’s what my son does best.

By neglecting to vote, Colin Kaepernick undermines his own movement

The New York Giants got another win Monday night. It’s been a week of progression, and it was great to see Black Eli and the defense get back to work. The rookie process is just that, a process. You can’t get caught up in the highs or the lows. I’ve always told him that if he doesn’t get caught up in the hype, he won’t have to worry about the hate. We don’t have press clippings and trophies on our walls because for us, that’s not what the game is about. I’ve never wanted other people’s words or media headlines to define who he is as a person or player. You’re not good because someone writes you’re good. You’re not bad because someone writes you’re bad. Your hard work, dedication and commitment to being the best at what you do determines who you are and how well you perform your craft. We’ve always told Black Eli to just play his game. I always love watching him out there because I know there’s nothing more he loves doing than playing football. I’m proud of the man is and the one he’s becoming. It’s so great as a mom when other players and coaches from other teams appreciate him as a person as well.

Before Monday night’s big win, I flew to New Orleans to do a feature for Sunday NFL Countdown. The piece, set to air a week from Sunday, is about one of the most extraordinary young man I’ve ever met, Jarrius Robertson. Jarrius is a 14-year-old who suffers from chronic liver disease and is in desperate need of a liver donor. He's in a daily battle for his life yet possesses infectious joy, energy and positivity. The Saints have taken him in and made him part of their team and member of their family.

How this week only deepened the appreciation I have for my son, Eli Apple

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For the piece, I got the opportunity to interview head coach Sean Payton, linebacker Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram. Coach Payton was very personable and energetic. After the interview, he talked about what a great young man my son is and wished him well.

Jordan was the first to walk into the interview room. He made fun of my height and called me 4'11". I reminded him that according to the state of New Jersey, I was 5’1 and New Jersey doesn’t lie. Cameron’s already beautiful eyes lit up when he talked of this 14-year-old young man Jarrius and how Jarrius’ presence around the team helps to uplift them and keeps football and life in perspective.

I was also impressed with Heisman winner Mark Ingram. I watched him dominate at Alabama and was glued to the TV when he won the Heisman. He walked into the interview room in great shape and a big smile. Of course I had to remind him that I was last in New Orleans two years ago to watch Ohio State beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He shot back with, "but who has more rings?" I reminded him that Ohio State will always be THE Undisputed CFP Champions. We won it first. Ingram said he’s hoping for another shot at the Buckeyes in the playoffs. I told him it would be our pleasure to whoop them again. When it came time to talk about Jarrius, Ingram was eloquent and passionate. His eyes grew bigger as he talked about this young man who is facing an everyday battle with death but brings life to everyone around him. After the interview, Ingram asked about Eli and said to tell him hello and is wishing him well. The fondness and respect other guys have when talking about my son is always amazing.

One thing about footballers, they’re pretty honest about how they feel about other guys. If they think a guy is dirty, they’ll say it. If they think a guy is lazy, cocky, they’ll say it or they’ll give a look and you know what that look means. I was pleasantly surprised and proud to be in New Orleans and hear a coach, team officials from another team speak of their fondness of my son. As a mom, compliments on your kid’s character are the most precious. Black Eli loves and respects the game and he embraces those who also love and respect the game. 

Football in America: How we really feel about the game today

The day before flying to New Orleans, I met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. I had reached out to him to discuss ways the NFL could be a more visible presence and voice in the fight against domestic violence. It was my first time at NFL headquarters, and I was moved by displays of all the Super Bowl rings from past to present. The commissioner greeted me with Godiva chocolates, and instantly I knew this man heard from God. (To the Patriots fans who will be living rent-free in my mentions, this is called sarcasm.)  Anyway, I had worked on a brief proposal and got the opportunity to present and discuss with both the Commissioner and Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s vice-president of social responsibility. It was a productive meeting that I’m very proud of. I really appreciated the Commissioner’s time, heart and commitment to bringing much needed change and perspective to the crisis of domestic violence. I thanked him for his time and for allowing me the opportunity to be part of a solution to this crisis. 

The NFL has pledged millions of dollars to helping domestic violence, including helping to staff domestic violence hotlines, but I recommended a more visual fight that will promote personal accountability and positive peer influence. We will never end domestic violence, but if we can change and educate male perceptions of domestic abuse, we will be on the road to decreasing domestic violence tragedies. We can't change behavior without first attacking the male culture that is often passive about violence towards women.  When we can put this responsibility and leadership in the hearts and hands of men, we’ll be on the road to a positive culture shift. Goodell was very receptive to this notion. He was attentive and jotted down notes. This wasn’t about publicity. I had reached out to him. He was authentic. After our meeting, I toured his office and saw pictures of his family and was very impressed with how he and his wife, Jane, got their dog to sit so perfectly for a picture. Our dogs, Dutch and Bear, aren’t there yet. I saw the conference room where the owners sit to meet. When I asked where Jerry Jones sits, the Commissioner replied, "wherever he wants."  We both laughed. As a father of two daughters, Goodell is very invested in being part of a solution to this growing crisis.

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This is what makes our country the greatest nation on earth: personal leadership and empowerment. Leadership and empowerment can come in the form of a 14-year-old boy battling liver disease with weekly stays in the hospital who is able to show strength and perseverance to men ten times his size. Leadership can also come in the form of a 5’1" mom and journalist who wants to see the game she loves become more socially responsible. The ability to see what’s wrong, speak on it and work to make it right are the ways our country has progressed. We’re not where we want to be as a country but we’ve come a long way. It’s always more productive to be a light than complain about the darkness. With a polarizing president-elect, it’s going to take all of us to be our personal best, to be the change we want to see and create the country we want and deserve. Leadership doesn’t start in the White House. It starts in our hearts.