SportsPulse: Athletes took to social media to voice their anger over George Floyd’s death, with many resurfacing photos of Colin Kaepernick’s protest over criminal and social injustice. USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour reiterates Kaepernick’s protest was never the issue in this country.
Joe Burrow can teach the NFL a thing or two.
The rest of America, too.
Unlike most prominent white male athletes, who have stayed largely silent about the racism and systemic oppression of people of color in this country, the No. 1 pick in last month’s NFL draft addressed it head on. At his own initiative.
“The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long,” Burrow said in a Twitter post Friday. “Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”
The outrage over the death of George Floyd, who died Monday after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, seems like a sea change. Perhaps it’s the sheer brutality of the video of Floyd’s death, with Derek Chauvin appearing calm and impassive to Floyd’s cries that he can’t breathe until his body goes limp. Or maybe it’s exhaustion from the unending bigotry of President Donald Trump, who has emboldened racists and white nationalists to say the quiet things out loud.
Whatever it is, the rage and protests roiling the country feel different. Burrow’s heartfelt post, as well as similar statements by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz, capture that shift.
“It’s very rare to see a white athlete say something to this magnitude,” said Louis Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State and author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality.”
“It’s important because it’s so different,” he added. “But it’s also a call to action. And if they pull through, if they actually do something about it, it can change the tide.”
When Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee almost four years ago in protest of police brutality against people of color and the racism at the root of it, he was joined by dozens of other players. But with few exceptions – very few exceptions – those players were also people of color.
Sure, there were white players who expressed support for their teammates. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers went so far as to say Kaepernick was being blackballed from the league. But very few white NFL players – and none with the profile and sway to change public opinion – were willing to initiate the conversation or take a visible stand.
The message was that this was a problem for black and brown players. It was their communities that were affected. They were the ones who knew the pain and humiliation of being judged by the color of their skin.
“That’s just how the movement has always been,” Moore said.
Whether that’s out of privilege, ignorance or fear of saying the wrong thing, I don’t know. What I do know is that people of color did not create this structure that is rooted in racism, and they cannot be expected to fix it. Not on their own, at least.
White people have to speak up and call for change, too. Particularly those who have a platform.
Like, say, an NFL quarterback.
Sad as it is to say, the letter from the Players Coalition asking for a federal investigation into the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased down and killed by two white men while he was jogging, probably would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for one name on it.
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Brady avoids anything that could be considered even slightly controversial like he does strawberries. So for the six-time Super Bowl champion to add his name to the call for justice was significant. If you’re a fan of the New England Patriots or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or just Brady in general, and you’ve never much thought about inequality, or you disapproved of Kaepernick, maybe you reconsider the way you think now.
If you’re a Clemson fan, maybe you pause and think about your own implicit biases after reading Lawrence’s posts.
“There has to be a shift in the way of thinking,” Lawrence said Friday on Twitter. “I’m siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience. The injustice is clear.. and so is the hate. It can no longer be explained away. If you’re still ‘explaining’ it – check your heart and ask why.”
And if you’re a black or brown player who has stayed quiet, knowing what happened to Kaepernick, maybe you feel emboldened to speak up, knowing your quarterback has your back.
“Being from North Dakota, I’ve spent a large part of my life surrounded by people of similar color, so I’m never gonna act like I know what the black community goes through or even has gone through already,” Wentz said Thursday night. “I’ll never know the feeling of having to worry about my kids going outside because of their skin color.
“However, I do know that we are all equal at the foot of the cross and Jesus taught us to value others’ lives like they were our own – regardless of skin tone.”
Systemic racism is not a black or brown problem. It’s a problem, period, one we all need to work to fix. It’s nice to see high-profile, white male athletes finally joining in the fight.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.