Elsa/Getty Images (McCown), Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Long), Kirk Irwin/Getty Images (DeValve)


  • What's the next phase for athlete activism in the NFL? The addition of more white allies in this fight.
By Jonathan Jones
February 20, 2018

As Colin Kaepernick remained without a job in the NFL—but stuck to his pledge of donating $1 million to charities during the 2017 season—the rest of the league had to reckon with what the unemployed quarterback had started. There was kneeling and other creative forms of protest during the national anthem, an explosive comment from president, the formation-squabble-results of the Players Coalition and players from all walks of life devising programs that help educate the next generation.

So if 2017 was the year of awakening in the NFL, what’s the next step in 2018?

At the Super Bowl earlier this month, I asked a number of people that question and, naturally, opinions differed. Some called for a more united front from the players. Others hope that the league will allow a greater platform for players to promote causes in their interest. But the answer became clear over the week, and the answer is both unfortunate and necessary, one backed by years of American history even if it’s deflating to those on the front lines of this fight for social justice and criminal justice reform.

The next step in athlete activism, in the NFL in particular, is the addition of more white allies in this fight that focuses specifically on the societal ills facing the black community and, more sharply, the black male community.

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Browns tight end Seth DeValve participated in a town hall panel on race relations and athlete activism during the week of the Super Bowl. Before the panel began, I asked DeValve, who became the first white player to kneel during the national anthem with his black teammates during a preseason game, if he felt the white players around the league did enough in this fight.

“Personally I think I would like to see more intentionality from the white teammate,” DeValve says. “But at the same time people are going to go about things in different ways. Not everybody is going to take a knee, not everybody is going to speak in front of the microphone or the camera. I really think there is a lot of powerful, good work that goes on behind the scenes that will never be reported on: from being a good teammate, caring about the individuals around you that may not have walked in the same shoes as you and listening to each other.

“But I do think the white teammates need to take a public stance of solidarity with their black teammates who are advocating for themselves, and the white teammate can make sure their [black teammates’] voices are heard.”

DeValve explains the essence of being a white ally—listening to black people explain their personal experiences with racism you’ve never experienced, shutting up when you understand that you don’t know everything, educating yourself and using your privilege to speak up publicly to amplify the message.

White allies should never be confused with white knights—the thought that without the help of a white savior swooping down to help blacks there would be no hope. That’s not what DeValve or Josh McCown or Chris Long are or want to be. But their privilege in this country carries a weight that allows their words to have more meaning than those of their darker-skinned peers, and by offering their voice the collective goal can be reached sooner.

Consider the cheers Aaron Rodgers received last fall when he had the guts to say what we all knew: that Kaepernick was good enough to have a job in the league. That story owned the day in the sports world because a prominent white player said the obvious. From then we all looked to check the box on every other white quarterback echoing the statement.

In a broader sports sense, look at the reaction when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Warriors coach Steve Kerr speak out on President Donald Trump and our nation’s history of racism. The pre-game videos of these coaches speaking to scribes in the arena tunnels go viral. Their comments are hailed—as they should be—but there’s no mistaking the importance of their comments because they are white. “Because you were born white, you have advantages systemically, culturally, psychologically there,” Popovich said in September in one of his viral screeds discussing Trump’s comments.

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Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, said at the town hall that he saw the best and worst in people in and around the league this past season. He praised the current players as men who “stood for things that we didn’t think about” when he was playing in the 1990s. And Vincent also took time to thank McCown, the Jets quarterback with whom he shared the stage that day.

“I must say Josh has been a tremendous leader in these efforts,” Vincent said. “One thing that was clear throughout this entire process that men wanted to make sure they were addressing black male issues.

“And to have Caucasian men, in particular two—Josh and Chris Long—they exemplify the brotherhood. It’s not easy talking about racial issues and you’re the minority in this conversation. And some of our discussions with ownership, the men made it clear this was not a catchall subject. We are not interested in catching and working out things for all people. We’ve been doing that. They made it very clear this was in particular about black boys. And to have Josh and have Chris say I stand alongside my teammates, I believe in what they believe in... when you talk about credit, we all play a role, but when you’re the minority in that room with these discussions, that’s true leadership. So I want to thank Josh.”

However the NFL owners have shown that there’s only certain speech they will tolerate from their players. Kaepernick is still jobless, and his former teammate and fellow kneeler Eric Reid is about to learn his fate in the coming months of free agency.

As the legendary writer Bill Rhoden penned recently, the NFLPA, headed by DeMaurice Smith, “lost the ‘war’ against owners by not fighting for Kaepernick.” Players cannot be certain their union will fight for them should they be blackballed. And given an opportunity to at least feign a fight for his union members during Super Bowl week, the normally verbose Smith said, “I’m going to be rather clipped in that because it’s an ongoing legal case,” referring to Kaepernick’s collusion suit, and then quickly invited players on the panel to weigh in.

“If you look at the history of our union in general and there’s always been,” Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich said, “whether it’s fighting for free agency or whatever it is, there’s always been a player or players who have been ostracized or blackballed or lost their job because of different things they’ve been fighting for that’s in the best interest of the player,” Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich said. “You always weigh your comments based on how you feel morality-wise and the perception that’s going to be portrayed to everyone else, and that everyone else includes your employer.”

Indeed, this does not just follow the history of the league’s union but the history of our nation. Jocelyn Benson, the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) that put on the town hall panel at which Vincent and McCown spoke, said for anyone speaking out on these issues, risks are certain to follow.

“If there’s anything that Civil Rights history teaches us is that anyone that speaks out to advance equality or to challenge the status quo incurs risks. Period,” Benson says. “That’s part of what you sign up for. While we have heard and worked with athletes who have expressed concerns about those risks, I think it’s important to be up front and truthful about it and that’s a reality. That’s what we learn from looking at history.”

Careers of black athletes have been lost for standing up for what’s right in large part because their voices alone were not enough for the majority. In this upcoming season, more white players who see the inequities in their teammates’ communities must speak up to help ensure no one else loses their job for standing up for the disenfranchised.

“I think with your sights set on progress,” DeValve says, “you take those risks.”

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