After a pivotal year in the NFL for propelling the issue of race relations into sports and news headlines, players and leaders reflected Friday on how progress can continue in 2018 — both on and off the football field.
“It may be time to evolve that movement,” said Michael Thomas, a safety with the Miami Dolphins. “Do we go beyond the NFL now?”
He joined current and former players and NFL leaders at the third annual Super Bowl Town Hall held by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, or RISE, which aims to use sports to improve race relations and instigate social progress. While professional athletes can leverage their fame and fortune to amplify important issues, it’s up to all people to change deeper systemic racism in the U.S., the attendees said.
“It’s no longer an option to stay silent,” Thomas said.
More than 200 people attended the event at the Mall of America just two days before Minnesota hosts the Super Bowl. RISE was founded in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
It’s been an especially relevant topic the past couple of years as the NFL has been thrust into a national debate over race relations. In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick inspired protests when he knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to racial inequality and police brutality against minorities. President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the NFL for not forcing players to stand for the national anthem.
Some players and owners formed the Players Coalition to work on social and racial justice initiatives, negotiating with the NFL to launch an $89 million fund to support local and national efforts through 2023.
“It showed players they have a voice,” ESPN reporter Jim Trotter said.
From improving the future for their kids to the outcry over the fatal shooting of Philando Castile by a St. Anthony police officer in Minnesota in 2016, NFL players and leaders said they’ve been driven to make a difference in society — even if it puts their families, careers or reputations at risk.
“Ultimately it’s a human issue,” said Josh McCown, a quarterback for the New York Jets. “If you see injustice happening ... you need to do what you can to make it better.”
Retired NFL running back Rashad Jennings described having dinner with a white high school friend before respectfully leaving after seeing KKK signs in the house. Two years later, the friend’s father apologized to Jennings, saying how he handled it made him rethink things.
“We are watching history repeat itself,” added Scott Pioli, assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, saying white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va., are reminders to people pushing for equality not to get comfortable.
Added Benjamin Watson, a tight end with the Baltimore Ravens: “When we look at this season, this is just a continuation of our growth as a nation.”