In the days following their much-heralded pregame protest in Seattle, the four Miami Dolphins players who kneeled during the national anthem decided they needed to move past making people aware of what they see as social inequalities for black people, and start doing something about it.
The players decided it wasn’t enough to point out that some black men are being shot by some police at a seemingly higher rate than anyone else, even as they continued their kneeling protests in New England and plan to keep doing it in the home opener Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
The four — Kenny Stills, Jelani Jenkins, Michael Thomas and Arian Foster — decided they needed to move into a solution mode.
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And that’s what Tuesday was about for the players: Taking a first but significant step toward finding solutions to the problem.
So with support from the Dolphins organization, and RISE (The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality — a nonprofit Dolphins owner Stephen Ross founded to promote understanding, respect and equality), the four players met with community leaders, police officers, and team personnel to an invitation-only Dolphins Town Hall to discuss the issues of concern and start looking for ways to address them.
“In terms of what happened the players that chose to take a knee really wanted some conversation and dialogue to happen,” Dolphins Director of Player Engagement Kaleb Thornhill said Tuesday evening. “Obviously they wanted awareness but they also wanted to do something proactive and doing something within the community and reaching out and being part of the solution.”
They invited police. Colonel Steve Kinsey, the Undersheriff of Broward County Sheriff’s Office, Miami Gardens Police Chief Antonio G. Brooklen, and Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian A. Moffett went to the team facility for the town hall.
Representatives from the Broward Sherrif’s Police Union, who have advocated not serving Miami Dolphins-related details in protest of the players’ protest, were not among the invitees.
They invited community leaders who devote much of their time working with youth. And Booker T. Washington High School football coach Ice Harris, Carol City High School football coach Aubrey Hill and Columbus High School football coach Chris Merritt went to the team facility for the town hall.
Dolphins staff came.
Dan Marino came.
Jason Taylor came.
Nat Moore came.
“I think it went really well,” Jenkins said. “We had a really good turnout. We had some really healthy conversation, some healthy dialogue. We could just tell there were a lot of people in there who really cared, cared about the community. From police officers, to leaders, to us players, to the RISE organization, everybody just wanted to make things better.
“It was really healthy. I had a really good time.”
The four players had already spent time on the telephone with Robert O’Neill to gain from him his thoughts on the meaning of Old Glory and Star Spangled Banner. O’Neill, by the way, is a former Navy sailor, Navy SEAL and Member of SEAL Team Six.
He is, by most accounts, the man credited with taking the shots that killed Osama bin Laden during a May 2011 raid on the terrorist’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Yes, for God and Country.
The players also spent time on the telephone retired U.S. Army Captain Florent “Flo” Groberg, who received the Medal of Honor at the White House in 2015 for his actions during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Both O’Neill and Groberg made their perspectives about flag and country clear to the players. O’Neill explained he is a white man from Montana and could not relate to racism because he hasn’t experienced it. But he said he could not agree with the player protests because of what the flag and national anthem meant to him.
“Flo, we faced timed him first,” Thomas said. “He was more, ‘I understand where you’ll are coming from. However, let me give you a history lesson of why people stand for the national anthem and the flag.’ And he started with World War II, then Vietnam. He said we’re honoring those who fought. So if people see you not standing up, they see that as disrespect.
“So, boom, I get that. I get that. I understand that.”
But the players also explained to the military heroes their experiences. Thomas explained how he has seen racism, how black men have told him they don’t believe society values their lives as much as a white person’s life.
The players also explained how they had sought to find a different way to protest during a team meeting but could find no consensus among players. Some players wanted to do something as an entire team either before or after the national anthem but not everyone would agree.
“People come from different walks of life, different perspectives, some people flat out don’t want to get involved, some people don’t think there’s a problem,” Thomas said. “So [making a statement as a team] is not a possibility for this team. I just know in my heart I can no longer stay silent.”
During the meaty part of the two-hour town hall the four players explained to the police, to Dolphins staffers, to every one of the 50 or so people present, why they kneeled.
“What was talked about was really the players went through and clarified why they decided to take those actions when they chose to take a knee,” Thornhill said. “They clarified that they have the utmost respect for military members and law enforcement and it was about something bigger than that. They wanted to see change, knowing there are social inequalities that currently exist. They wanted to start a dialogue around those. The guys did a great job of explaining, which led to feedback from community leaders.”The police officers and youth coaches spoke as well — outlining from their perspectives why the issue exists and obviously giving their opinions on the topic. Police protocols were explained. The officers also discussed how some changes are in the works and some challenges are keeping some things as they have always been.
A team source present at the town hall said one officer related a story in which he met a 5-year-old who told him he didn’t like him (the officer). The officer asked why.
“Because you’re going to kill my daddy,” the boy said.
“The police officer said he was heartbroken and told the boy, ‘I’m going to throw a pizza party for you and your friends.’ And the kid looked at him like he was crazy and a week later the police officer came back and threw a pizza party for the kid at school,” the source said. “And now the kid wants to be a police officer some day.”
And then the agenda moved to the solutions stage.
The first step was to see what a solution looks like. The idea was to set a vision for how things should be, or how everyone would like them to be. That was followed by a game plan building stage meant to attack the problem.
This is where solutions were offered. Those included:
Focusing on kids in schools and better educating them about police.
Getting more police participation in community events.
One idea is going to be implemented first — as in Sunday when the Dolphins play their home-opener against the Cleveland Browns at Hard Rock Stadium.
The team will host a pregame tailgate that will bring youngsters from hard hit neighborhoods and families to Hard Rock for a tailgate that will also be attended by police officers and other youth leaders. And after that tailgate, everyone will go inside the stadium to watch the Dolphins play the Browns.
Although all the details have not yet been worked out, the four players pledged to pay for the purchase of food and other items for the tailgate event and tickets to the game.
The idea behind the tailgate event is to encourage interactions between kids and police.
“The players want to be fully embedded into the doing part,” Thornhill said. “They’re not shying away from using funds or innovative ideas that lead to solutions. We’re not just trying to bring awareness. They’re fully engaged into solution-based ideas dealing with social issues they feel extremely strongly about.”
Said Thomas: “A lot of people feel like you have to either be on this side or this side when personally, I say, ‘No, it’s going to take both sides coming together to find solutions.’ You don’t have to be on either side of the conversation. There’s not a side you have to pick.”