NFL players are poised to be a force for social justice

NFL player Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans - and in doing so signaled an era in which sports fans often are required now to take moral stands on matters not really about sports at all.
NFL player Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans - and in doing so signaled an era in which sports fans often are required now to take moral stands on matters not really about sports at all. Getty Images

This is an extraordinary moment in sports in the United States. Recently, the Players Coalition, led by NFL players Malcolm Jenkins, Doug Baldwin and Anquan Boldin, reached a historic tentative agreement with the NFL, earmarking almost $100 million for efforts by the Players Coalition and the NFL to work toward addressing social-justice concerns, particularly those affecting African-American communities.

This effort stems from Colin Kaepernick’s brave decision over a year ago to sit and then kneel during the pre-game playing of the national anthem. In its wake, athletes in many sports and of all ages have expressed their feelings on a number of social-justice issues through silent, peaceful pre-game protests. Nowhere, however, have these protests been as numerous and effective as in the NFL.

Dozens — and at times hundreds — of players have carried the protests forwards, sitting, kneeling, raising their fists, or locking arms in unity during the anthem. In doing so, they have refused to let the nation, or the NFL, turn attention away from the social justice issues that concern them and plague our country. The earmarked funds would be directed toward criminal justice reform legislation, improving police-community relations, and educational and economic advancement in under-resourced communities.

This agreement was discussed at the NFL owners meetings last week. This would certainly be a positive development, but this moment in history could yield so much more. Earmarked funds, even the substantial amounts discussed by the NFL and the Players Coalition, only go so far. They are a part of the solution, but not the entire solution.

Our nation needs enduring, trans-generational, societal change, and that requires systematized commitment and leadership that keeps the players’ and owners’ focus on progress. The NFL has produced extraordinary leaders who have served their communities and our nation, such as Alan Page (Minnesota State Supreme Court Chief Justice), Steve Largent (U.S. Congressman), and Reggie Williams (Cincinnati City Councilman). We, together with Fritz Pollard Alliance co-founder Cyrus Mehri, suggest a five-point plan that would cost little but would help groom community and national leaders from the player population and move us forward with strength and power.

▪ Seize the moment: NFL players have never had more leverage than they do now, and that leverage will not last forever. Now is the time to band together and act decisively.

▪ Written compact: All agreements should involve specific and achievable deliverables and should be reduced to writing so that they are memorialized and can stand the test of time.

▪ Build a player leadership structure: Each team should have two Social Justice Captains, selected each year to work directly with the clubs and the league on social-justice reform. These 64 Social Justice Captains would participate in charting the league’s social-justice initiatives each year and would have direct access to the commissioner’s office to express players’ concerns.

▪ Build a program: Institute a Talking Tuesdays Program, through which, on the first Tuesday of each month, NFL players will be able to spotlight issues of national or community concern across clubs to create a public national dialogue and use player platforms for leadership. Each month’s program would feature a different topic, decided upon by the Players Coalition and the Social Justice Captains.

▪ Seize the ballot: Every player should be registered to vote. To change the direction of our country, we must vote. Citizenship starts with voting. Each club should be responsible for coordinating periodic voter registration drives in its home city, and players, with the Social Justice Captains at the helm, should take the lead. Kenny Stills and his Miami Dolphins teammates have already done so, with all players registered to vote announced this week. Young people throughout the nation look up to NFL players, and those players’ leadership on voter registration could influence generations of children to recognize the power of the ballot and to seize it.

This moment in the NFL has revealed, once again, the enormous power players have to spark change. Let’s grow that power by helping to grow more and more leaders among players. That is how we will keep this movement going and maximize its ultimate impact.

Harry Carson and John Wooten are the executive director and chairman, respectively, of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the organization of NFL coaches, scouts, and front office personnel of color. Carson played his entire professional career with the New York Giants and served as team captain for 10 of those 13 years. Wooten played nine NFL seasons with the Cleveland Browns before a groundbreaking career as an executive with several clubs.