This is normally the last week or two before players and coaches and staff think of going somewhere, anywhere, to get far away from football, to vacation before training camp. Nothing normal about these days, though. The other day, when Patriots defensive backs and twins Devin and Jason McCourty sat down to record their podcast, “There was no way we could talk football,” Devin McCourty said. “You couldn’t even talk the pandemic. Everything was about equality, about George Floyd, about the protests. It was overwhelming.”
Team meetings via Zoom, overtaken league-wide by listening sessions—black players and coaches took the floor, for days on several teams, and the air got very heavy with stories of American inequities from black players. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who is black, said to his mates. Some high-profile players angry with the NFL for issuing only a tepid statement on the explosive death of Floyd put out a PSA. “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. Club facilities were opened to coaching staffs on Friday after 13 weeks of coronavirus-enforced absence, but it was almost an afterthought. Think of how desperate coaches must be to get back to some degree of normal after not having a single workout for the entire spring. And coach after coach last week—football was an afterthought. Never do you hear all-football-all-the-time coaches like Houston’s Bill O’Brien talk like this:
“As a white head football coach in the National Football League, it’s important to speak out. There is real pain and statements can’t really take the pain away, I understand that. It’s so much deeper. It’s 400-years-ago slavery, it’s segregation, it’s police brutality, it’s not equal opportunities. It’s so much deeper, it’s deeper. We have to stand with the black community and we have to heed the call to action and challenge each other to live out the change that we want to see. I’m emotional, I’m sad, I’m frustrated because I’m questioning what can I do. I’ve got to do more.”
With the nation so fraught, I thought I would ask African-American people close to the game to answer this: What do we do now? What should we do next?
Michael Thomas, Houston safety
“It is different, 2016 to now, to see the response. So many people protesting, so many players getting active. But after the protests, what do we do?
Safety Michael Thomas signed with the Texans in April. (Getty Images)
“The biggest thing is taking the energy and momentum of this moment and using it for real change. Hold our elected officials responsible. In your local community, what bills are on the floor for things like police reform and reduction of police use of force? Support #8CantWait [eight policing policies, such as elimination of chokeholds and strangleholds of suspects] to fight systemic oppression of black people. Stop settling for paid leave for guilty officers. We want convictions, we want justice. Call your mayor, your elected officials, and say you want better policing policies. If they don’t want to make these changes, vote ‘em out. We have to emphasize elections, and not just for president. So much happens on the local level that impacts local lives.
“For so often, demands like this were met with deaf ears, or with anger. ‘You’re crying wolf.’ Not now. Now, with more cameraphones, people can see it. People can hear it. We understand the police are heavily protected because of the system. We are going after that.
“The attitude has to be, I’ve got to be the change I want to see.”
Demario Davis, New Orleans linebacker
“The solution has to start with the conviction of four people. Then we have to address police brutality and how black communities are policed in America. It is costing lives. How do we do that? The best way is to empower the good cops. We don’t talk about the good cops enough. So many of those good cops are not in position to control the bad cops because of the way policing is done in America. There were lots of signs along the way that the killer of George Floyd had issues, and he should have been weeded out. That means empowering the good cops to police the bad cops. Prosecutors need to have more strength. The police unions—I am all for labor unions—but when you have unions that protect injustice, we’ve got a problem. Those police unions have contracts that protect them and allow police to operate with immunity.
“A lot of things in our core of America will have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The forefathers basically kidnapped black people to be labor for landowners. Somewhere along the line we didn’t level out the playing field. Before you build anything, you have to level the ground. After 400 years of oppression, this can’t be done by blacks alone. It has to be all of us collectively.
“These demonstrations have been incredible. They’ve been some of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in my life. It’s in the millions now, all around the world. It’s an amazing thing to see, not just because I am black—shows the power of people when we are united. Gives me hope that we can bring change.”
Steve Wyche, NFL Network reporter
“There is no right answer. Do what you’re comfortable doing. If you’re talking to people and all they’re talking about is the rioting, ask them, ‘Why do you think people are doing that?’ Get people to pause. Overall, I am more in the macro. The big picture is to try and correct what’s going on with law enforcement, with the lack of prosecution of bad officers, with the influence of police unions in getting certain DAs in office. Those are important issues.
“But the micro is important too. Sometimes I find that, when I read books about certain cultures, I say, ‘I didn’t know that.’ So instead of reading Lee Child this summer, read ‘A Song Yet Sung’ by James McBride. It’s fiction, but it’s an incredible ride through the underground railroad on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Read the book ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson, who runs the Equal Justice Initiative. And learn. Maybe you’ll realize, wow, the deck is really stacked against people of color. Take the time to read about the struggles of another culture. It is amazing what education, and listening, can do.”
Emmanuel Acho, ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL player
Acho did a widely shared nine-minute video called “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man” last week.
“Pardon my excitement, my pain, my tears, whatever. The fact that so many people watched and are interested says my hunch was accurate: White people are finally are ready to listen. That is vitally important. This is the perfect time for people to listen. Normally this time of year, people might be watching sports, glued to the LeBron highlights. But right now, there is nothing to do but sit in the stench of America’s greatest sin.
“People ask, ‘What can we do now?’ Action doesn’t have to look active. The biggest thing white people can do now is listen. Fully educate yourself on the black experience, so you can know what you’re standing for. Have a conversation with a black person you know. Open yourself up. When I chose to do ‘Uncomfortable Conversations,’ I just wanted to people to ask anything and consider it a safe space. Will it lead to action? Yes! Because you can’t fully empathize with me until you understand me.
“Let’s get to the cause of the problem rather than create some laws to fix the problem. The law is the band-aid. Let’s keep the problem from happening in the first place.”
Ricardo Allen, Atlanta safety
“What can we do right now? Keep the narrative the truth. Systemic injustice. The country is not set up for a black man to win in America. Don’t let people take the story away. I have always worked to press for change. Growing up [in Florida], I don’t think my mom voted. We need to educate ourselves on how important it is to vote not just for the president but for the governors and the mayors and the local elections.
“Fill out the census. Why is the census taken? It can help our communities. Participate.
“I’m happy the conversation is opening up about how unequal things are. This can’t just be about police brutality. It’s the wealth gap too. I’m not only the first one in my family to go to college, I was the first to graduate high school. The slave masters were businessmen; they taught their children business. Slaves were the workers; they were teaching their kids how to work. I believe, Don’t just give people a fish. TEACH them how to fish.
“Sometimes we talk about ideas of how to help in the DB [defensive backs] room. We’ve been talking about starting a fund to help black people who graduate from college—maybe help cut down the student loans. These young people have so many pressures. Maybe they have a kid, maybe they have to help support their family. We’re thinking creative.”
Deion Sanders, Hall of Fame player, NFL Network analyst
“In this crisis, there is only one thing we can do: confront the truth about ourselves and about our nation. The consistent racism against black men runs deep and must be stopped! We must all continue to say the name George Floyd—until as a nation we catch our breath. Let’s take the unity and momentum that we just witnessed as a first step to true reconciliation. It’s not time for the hurry-up offense. It’s time we huddle and not break until the play is truly understood. Let’s exercise unconditional love. Let’s stop judging by color or class, and let’s remember, as the pandemic has taught us tearfully, we’re all in this game of life together.
“Let’s do better one day at a time!”
Isaac Rochell, defensive end, Los Angeles Chargers
“There are a lot of things that need to be done in the country to make it equal for all. This issue is a monster with a lot of different heads. There are so many systemic issues that have to be focused on. Dealing with police brutality is an important thing, a very important thing, but it’s not the only thing. I’ve become passionate about, How do we get minorities fed? I’ve read that by the summer, one in four minorities will be hungry [in the United States]. I started a clothing company called Local Humans. For every shirt bought, we donate a shirt to a foster-children center, we give five burgers to the L.A. food bank through our partnership with Impossible Food, and donate $10 to No Kid Hungry [a children’s hunger organization].
“Sometimes, people are overwhelmed with what to do. Collectively, as long as we’re all heading to the same place but using a different path, human beings can do a lot.
“I am optimistic now. For a while Americans were getting desensitized to it all. Maybe this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Last night, I went to a protest in Newport Beach [Calif.], and I was one of the only black guys there. It probably represented the true demographics of America—most of the crowd white. But it was mind-blowing to see families, little kids holding up ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs. Super-moving. Honestly, it restored my faith in humanity.”
Devin McCourty, New England safety
“What we’ve heard and seen in the last week or so is that more people care, more people are interested. I would encourage people to listen. Learn the problems. Really learn them. Let’s listen. Let’s correct and handle situations that don’t need to happen. We know how important the police officers are in our society. But there have to be consequences when they do wrong.
“I’m not super-confident a year from now we’ll be past the conversation stage. Right now, the Fortune 500 companies, the big banks, they’re having the conversations. If things improve a little bit, we’ve got to fight that feeling of just being happy with some progress. People need to jump in and jump in for the long haul, to help future generations and not just themselves.”
Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner
“I spent 15 years working in Minnesota [as a Vikings VP], and since the death of George Floyd, I’ve had conversations with CEOs, friends and people from our black church in north Minneapolis. Without fail, they’re asking, ‘Kevin, what can we do to make sure this won’t happen again?’ And, ‘What can we do to get better as a society?’
“I believe this is going to be a galvanizing force, because when people are in pain, they want to do something. People want to have a purpose. We are trying to save our world now, and I believe we have an opportunity for significant positive change here. My feeling is we should do what we can, something we’re comfortable with. We’ll never forget what happened with George Floyd. Those things have been happening for hundreds of years. I’ve asked myself, ‘What can we do? What can the Warren family do?’ I am a lawyer by trade. I have been able to understand access to quality representation in all legal matters is critical. Sometimes, it’s the most important item. So our family has donated $100,000 to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and I will build a relationship with this organization. We will combat hate and racial injustice in all ways we can, including legal channels.
“We are going to make a difference with the 10,000 student-athletes in the Big Ten. We’ve just formed the Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. We will galvanize as a conference and find action items as administrators, coaches and student-athletes.
“My son, Powers, is a student-athlete at Mississippi State, a tight end on the football team. He’ll be going back to school soon, and I’ll urge him to be a force for positive change. That’s what we all need to be.”
Robert Klemko, staff writer, Washington Post
Klemko, who formerly covered the NFL for The MMQB, has been covering the protests and riots in Minnesota for the Post.
“Talk to your kids. While reporting on the protests in Minnesota, I met a white family who had adopted a Honduran child and two Haitian children. The kids are now 15, 11 and 11. They were bringing their children to the Floyd memorial as a teaching moment. When I talked to the parents, they said they had spoken to their children extensively about racial identities and race relations in this country, in part because they didn’t want the kids’ first experiences as targets of racism to floor them. They told me about friends of theirs who hadn’t had a single conversation with their white children of the same age about this moment in history. I don’t have kids, but I don’t imagine the next generation improves upon what transpired here this month by ignoring the topic of race and pretending none of this happened.”
Nate Burleson, former NFL receiver, current “Good Morning Football” co-host
“As a league, there should be even more encouragement to do things that matter in the offseason, and on your off-day. Cities need so much help. Kids need so much help. We need more encouraging voices in our communities. Visit a school. These kids are struggling. Maybe they don’t feel there’s hope. White players should go too—inner-city kids who might only know fear of white police officers, they need to see that there are white people who care about them too. There is no more Charles Barkley ‘we are not role models.’ It should be one of the unwritten parts of every athletes’ contract—If we’re going to make you one of the richest people in the world, we need you in the community.
“As a society, we’ve got to sow the right seeds. There are pockets of society sowing the seeds of hate. We have to teach our teachers, our parents, our children to sow the seeds of love. I see people of all races protesting, people all over the globe protesting. And the young. The young! They’re on the front lines. I saw a video of a young white girl arguing with her parents about why black people are so angry, explaining the oppression that’s gone on for so long. This young girl, almost like she was a professor, taking lines from a Martin Luther King documentary, talking passionately to her parents. A very young girl. Now that’s hope.
“If you can’t march, or just don’t feel like it’s in you to march, that’s okay. If you don’t want to pick up a megaphone and yell, ‘Black lives matter,’ that’s okay. Then just have empathy. Listen to the narratives with compassion, love and facts.”