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NFL Players Are Helping to Shine a Massive Spotlight on What's Happening in America

During a period of tumult in our country, professional athletes across sports are using their platforms to make sure their voices are heard.

A good bunch of us, it seems, are simply hunkering down and waiting for the inevitable historical course correction, the period of (relative) peace that follows the period of tumult. The period of (relative) understanding that follows the period of cruelty and hatred.

Hunkering down is the safe thing to do. It doesn’t offend anybody. It doesn’t initiate the uncomfortable conversations we tell ourselves we’re not built to have. Hunkering down takes all of the country’s problems and puts them on someone else’s shoulders. Someone who is stronger and braver than we are. Someone who is willing to live out the ideals we claim to hold dear.

That’s why we should remain in awe of what we’ve seen from NFL players over the past four years. Fighting the good fight takes time and energy. Fighting the good fight takes incredible stamina. It requires an uncomfortable alertness that, if all of us decided to live our lives that way, might cause us to recoil due to the overwhelming unease of its realities.

Following the NBA and WNBA’s lead, NFL players are taking massive steps toward a work pause that will shine a massive spotlight on what is happening in the U.S. at the moment. As of this column’s publication, the Bears, Broncos, Cardinals, Colts, Jets, Packers, Titans and Washington are not practicing. On Wednesday, a few days after Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wis., was shot seven times in the back, the Lions canceled practice and used their platform to plead with the world, hoping that someone might be willing to see the magnitude of what is happening from their perspective. The Players Coalition continues to support criminal justice reform. They’ve helped pass nearly a dozen new bills. They’ve helped restore voting rights. They’ve been able to help spike law enforcement officials who have a proven record of unreliability at trial from unfairly impeding someone else’s slog through the criminal justice system.

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They’re doing it all while waiting for the rest of us to stop hunkering down. While waiting for their own bosses to stop hunkering down.

This is a fascinating time in our collective history because, in a lot of industries, the types of people who’ve been chosen to lead have changed. It became less valuable to have a professional leader and more important to have a professional hunkerer. Someone like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who emerges from his bunker once in a blue moon, licks his finger and tests which way the wind is blowing before issuing a statement so bubble-wrapped in legalese we could safely ship it around the world (what, exactly, is the value of saying, “Well, yeah, I was wrong about Colin Kaepernick,” four years later?). The void in leadership, in chutzpah, has been passed down from each C-level suite and onto the backs of employees who are daring enough to risk their livelihoods for a glimpse of something better.

That’s the thing. We all want something better for ourselves, for our families, for our loved ones and friends. But progress doesn’t get made in board meetings stuffed full of actuaries wondering how little they can give before it all blows over. It doesn’t get made in the bunkers we all create for ourselves. It comes from something uniquely persistent and uniquely American. Using what little leverage you have to bring a billion-dollar industry to a slow crawl just a few weeks before the start of the season (or in the case of the NBA, in the thick of the playoffs). Being the people willing to stand up amid the ugliness, even when the rest of us might not be willing to.