From Zooms to Locker Rooms, NFL Players Can Talk Race and Racism with Respect

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJune 3, 2020

Richard Sherman says the lack of stereotyping among NFL players eases their ability to connect with each other in conversation.
Richard Sherman says the lack of stereotyping among NFL players eases their ability to connect with each other in conversation.Gregory Payan/Associated Press

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, one of the true leaders in the NFL, and respected by almost everyone in it, was asked a simple question: Will the horrifying killing of George Floyd change the racial dynamics inside locker rooms?

Will there be more conversations on race and racism? Or fewer? Or exposed nerves? Does Floyd's violent death change the way players will relate to each other?

"I don't think it will be much different," Sherman told B/R. "The locker room is different from society in that we are able to have conversations out of a place of respect, more times than not, because the stereotypes of society have usually been removed, or faded by the time people get to the NFL. You learn to at least respect your teammate regardless of race, and come to have a genuine love and appreciation [for your teammate].

"Much different than society, where stereotypes dictate behavior."

...where stereotypes dictate behavior.

Sherman isn't talking about teams. Teams are run by owners and general managers, and though the NFL has come a long way, there remains a stubborn strain of racism that permeates the upper echelon of the sport, like a stench that remains no matter the number of plug-in deodorizers stationed around the house.

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Sherman is speaking about players. The locker room is a vastly different place from ownership suites, and parts of society, and this is a good thing. As the country deals with the aftermath of Floyd's killing, players are having heartfelt, and calm, conversations about racism in America, I'm told by several players.

As Sherman notes, this is generally what happens in locker rooms. Issues of race are mostly handled delicately and sincerely. Not all the time, but usually.

Such conversations about race by players are taking place now across text, phones and Zoom. They are happening between individuals, and in team meetings over the internet. Players are watching the same images all of us are, and having the same emotions and fears. Many players obviously are angry, obviously, and scared about the direction of the country. They see the tear gas. They see and hear the flash-bangs. Some are themselves protesting.

Once teams are clear of pandemic restrictions that have prevented practices at their facilities, the conversations will continue in person, and they will still be passionate but thoughtful.

And, yes, locker rooms are far from perfect. We know this. And, yes, there are racists in them. We know this, too.

Locker rooms, and player relationships, frayed as the Trump era began. Donald Trump caused divisions in locker rooms the way he did the entire country.

However, the same events and issues that sparked this week's public protests have united locker rooms and caused even the most conservative and liberal players to come together.

There was one story I heard about a white player calling a black teammate after the video showing Floyd being killed circulated online. The two rarely had spoken, but this conversation was long and emotional. The two now speak and text almost every day.

In Philadelphia, the comments of Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson at a team meeting inspired center Jason Kelce to write on Instagram: "Systemic racism is unquestionable in our society, the numbers are irrefutable. Hopefully our society will continue to hold ourselves and our government to higher standards as leaders of the free world. 'We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that ALL MEN are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are LIFE, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness'- that sentence was written over two centuries ago, and we still aren't there. As Americans, I believe it is our duty to hold our country accountable to those words, it's the only way we will ever get there."

In Seattle, coach Pete Carroll turned over a team video meeting to the players so they could express how they felt about the events unfolding in the country.

"Coach Carroll is very aware of the things that are going on, so today we did not speak about football; we focused on what was going on in the world," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "We gave anybody the opportunity to express their feelings, express their emotions and express their anger. Because at the end of the day, life is bigger than football. There's a lot of things that are happening that are bigger than football, so [Carroll] provided an opportunity for guys to speak about the things they saw, the things they're dealing with, what it's like in the city that they're in... I think it's dope, because a lot of people don't get to express those emotions, those feelings, and to have a platform and to have a situation where we could do that, it was great. It's bigger than football."

The Rams held a meeting Monday in which coach Sean McVay "opened the floor to his players," USA Today reported. 

It's possible locker rooms will become more tense. If the country further splinters, locker rooms might not be able to be what they mostly are now, which is calmness in a storm.

It could get ugly, but it probably won't because players have learned, and live by, one important word: respect.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.