Is the NFL Finally Listening?

In the wake of this year's protests, the league says it's ready to embrace the social justice movement, and while coaches and owners are voicing their support, players still feel there's a lot to do.
photo of Kalyn KahlerKalyn KahlerContributor IJuly 6, 2020

No football questions.

If the 50-some NFL reporters on the Vikings' Zoom press conference call hadn't been muted, there would have been a collective audible gasp.

"We understand some people may have football questions," said Jeff Anderson, the Vikings' VP of strategic and corporate communications. "But we really want today to be about the significant events facing our community and the country. … We will have plenty of time to talk football in the coming weeks."

No football questions? There likely hasn't been a press conference or media availability organized by a team that has ever begun with these ground rules. The caveats are typically only football questions. Talk of "distractions" like politics, societal issues or anything "off the field" is usually discouraged.

That a team would mandate a press conference not revolve around football is a measuring stick of how far the league has movedand of how far players have moved it—in the past month following the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests that have gripped the nation. When Colin Kaepernick kicked off the social justice movement within the NFL four years ago, many got lost talking about his method—the kneeling—and not his reason. Though four years late, the league that botched the handling of Kaepernick's protests has now admitted it wasn't listening then. That something valuable was happening and the league failed to defend it and take up the fight.

"What the league is trying to express is the same sentiment that everybody is expressing: that that was a protest on behalf of police brutality before, and we missed it," Saints linebacker Demario Davis says. "Everybody has to admit that."

"I wasn't even sure if I would ever get to see that [apology]," says Texans safety Justin Reid, whose older brother Eric knelt alongside Kaepernick with the 49ers and faced an onslaught of criticism that stretched all the way to the White House. "But they did do that, and I give them credit for that, but now I need to see them back it up."

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In one of the strangest offseasons in NFL history, teams and players have more time to spend talking about racism. The COVID-19 pandemic halted all the usual offseason activitiesrookie camps, organized team activities, workouts. And with training camp still weeks away, and the regular season even further out, there's a lot of time to think and reflect on the killings that have shaken the nation and stirred many to understand systemic racism isn't a vestige of the past.

Andre Patterson, the Vikings' co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, is one of the 10 regular members of the Vikings' social justice committee and one of six gathered on the Zoom call. Now 60, he was born during the civil rights movement and has lived through several iterations of outrage and unrest in response to police brutality against Black people. He happened to be in L.A in the spring of 1992, recruiting high school football players for his job as defensive line coach at Washington State. While he was there, a jury acquitted four officers for use of excessive force in the arrest and beating of Rodney King, which led to several days of intense demonstrations and rioting over the verdict.

"This has been going on my whole life," Patterson says. "Through time, the Black community has been telling the world that this has been going on. And a lot of people didn't want to believe that it was going on, that the person had to do something wrong to either get choked to death or shot or whatever. OK? But this ... one's different: Because the whole world got to see the life leave that man's body. … Not only did they get to see him lose his lifethey got to see it from start to finish. So that's why you see the protests the way you do."

Will the protests in the streets make their way back onto the field? How have the conversations changed within locker rooms? B/R Mag spoke to players and coaches around the league to figure out what this moment means in football.


Justin Reid is riding in an Uber in Austin, Texas, on his way to a 7-Eleven. The driver has just had to turn around to find a new route because several streets are blocked off due to protests. As the driver turns down a different street, the two start talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the driver, a white man, says he doesn't really agree with it.

The 23-year-old Texans safety is the younger brother of free-agent safety Eric Reid. He's been close to the social justice movement within football since its beginning. Then a student-athlete at Stanford, Justin watched his older brother protest to raise awareness of the oppression of Black people and specifically police brutality. Justin heard the message get drowned out by those who incorrectly conflated Eric's stance as a protest of the American flag. He witnessed the death threats on social media his brother received and the emails that labeled Eric and his family as "terrorists." He felt no one was talking about why his brother was kneeling during the anthem; they were only talking about the fact that his brother was kneeling.

Texans safety Justin Reid was reticent to kneel during the playing of the national anthem after witnessing the criticism his brother got for doing so four years ago.
Texans safety Justin Reid was reticent to kneel during the playing of the national anthem after witnessing the criticism his brother got for doing so four years ago.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

During the ride, Reid tells the driver that the primary focus of the BLM protests is to address police brutality against the Black community. He explains that, to him, "defund the police" doesn't mean to fire every police officer. "We're not trying to end the police; we're just saying the police are overfunded," he says. If some of that funding were directed toward areas like education and community programs, that might help prevent crime.

"But 'reallocation of resources of the police' doesn't have the same ring to it as defund the police. ... Nobody can disagree that officers that kill nonviolent, unarmed, non-resistant civilians should not be able to continue to walk freely and go out and do it over and over again. That officer, [Derek] Chauvin, it wasn't his first time even shooting. … He has a track record of [misbehavior]."

Reid sees conversations like this as his role right now. As he's been around the movement since the beginning, he knows the direction it's headed. He routinely uses his platform on Twitter to correct any misinformation circulating and, "Keep people straight and focused on the real issues at hand." 

Before he was drafted, Reid's own team contributed to drowning out Kaepernick and his brother's message. In October 2017, ESPN's Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. published an in-depth story on the NFL meetings between owners and players to discuss protests during the national anthem. In one of those meetings, Texans owner Bob McNair told the other owners that they "can't have the inmates running the prison."

McNair issued an apology that stated he was referring to people in the league office, not players. But the damage was deep and irreversible. Players around the league responded, saying the statement "showed his true colors" in signaling how he viewed players. Then-Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins would later say the comment made him feel "like I'm a slave again." Some Houston players threatened to walk out of practice two days before their next game at Seattle. A number of players kneeled that Sunday, a protest directed toward McNair's comment, about which Eric Reid tweeted at the time: "Thank God not every inmate is incarcerated by racism and prejudice."

Reid was drafted six months after McNair's comment tore through the NFL. He says he was aware of that precedent and that it did impact him personally, but he declined to go into more detail.

McNair died a year later in 2018, and his son Cal now serves as the team's chairman and CEO. A little over a week after George Floyd was killed by a police officer, Cal recorded a video statement addressing the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. He acknowledged his own privilege and pledged to use the Texans platform to empower Black leaders in Houston. After he recorded his statement, Cal and his wife Hannah went to the Texans' front office with an idea for a video series to continue the dialogue about racism and racial injustice. In Conversations for Change, Cal, Hannah and his mother, Janice, host discussions with current and former Texans players and staff about the experiences of the Black community and changes that need to be made to fight racial injustice.

Cal has yet to speak with the Texans players directly, but Reid, who sat next to Cal and Hannah at Floyd's funeral in Houston, has noticed him joining the call to action, and he says it feels like the team is turning a new leaf. "I do give credit to Cal for that," he says. "He has been a lot more active. He has been a lot more receptive to us as players to what we have been trying to communicate. He has been willing to help create the change, which is all really big things, and I am really proud of him for that."

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien has also felt the pull of the organization's shift. Recently, he told the Houston Chronicle's John McClain that he'd kneel with his players this coming season. "I'm all for it," he said. "They're not taking a knee because they're against our flag. They're taking a knee because they haven't been treated equally in this country for over 400 years."

O'Brien, who told ESPN in 2018 that he supported "the players' right to express themselves," caught Reid by surprise because he hadn't told his players that he'd kneel with them.

"That is a very big step for the NFL," says Reid, who shot O'Brien a text telling him how much he appreciated his support. "Especially coming from where the Houston Texans started with some comments and things that I don't want to get into. But OB has really had our back through all of this. ... I think that will be a signal for other teams in the league and other people in the community that still have been missing the message about what that is really about."

Reid, for his part, has never kneeled for the anthem, preferring to do his work behind the scenes. "I just didn't want to be vocal about it because I didn't want to have to face the repercussions or consequences of speaking out against police brutality," he says. "But it has hit a boiling point to where myself and much of the rest of America just couldn't hold our tongue. Something needs to change, and it needs to change now."

Reid's voice is a welcome addition for some players who have become frustrated with the lack of progress in the social justice realm. Texans teammate Kenny Stills has been kneeling since 2017, and when he was with the Dolphins, he was an outspoken advocate, imploring the team to lend its weight to the cause while also working with the franchise to do so. While Stills has been active these past few monthsattending a social justice rally in honor of Breonna Taylor—the Texans receiver hasn't done a single interview since Floyd's death. Through his agent, Stills declined to talk for this story. For those players who started this fight, the NFL's shift comes late.

"It's opened up a lot of wounds for him again," Reid says. "We've been fighting for all this time; we've been fighting for years. And we haven't gone anywhere since 2016. A fight for four years along with Kaepernick, my brother, and even [Texans safety] Michael Thomas. [Kenny] has done interviews all back then. He has done so many interviews. People always bashed him to the point where he justhe is just doing the work regardless. He is just doing the work, and he doesn't need to do the interviews along with it. They have been fighting the fight for a long time. It's kind of like, 'It's our turn now.'"

Reid hasn't decided whether he'll kneel this coming season, because it's too early to say where the movement will be in September. "Honestly," he adds, "if our head coach is kneeling, I am dead sure kneeling."

The Uber driver pulls up at the 7-Eleven. They're having such a good conversation that he decides to wait for Reid to run his errand and then take him back to his hotel. He's never heard BLM explained in this way before and never had a discussion about it where it didn't turn into a partisan issue in which everyone winds up pointing fingers. Reid's breakdown of the issues makes sense. He points out this is a humanity issue, not a partisan one.

"I am 100 percent for that," the driver tells Reid when he gets back into the car. Reid tells the driver that he knows Kaepernick through his older brother, Eric, and he's had a front-row seat to this movement for the past four years. When the driver pulls up at the hotel, he thanks Reid for the conversation, and Reid returns that thanks.


Dan Quinn is grateful to be back in his spacious office on the second floor of the Falcons' Flowery Branch, Georgia, facility. Now that the building is reopened, he's been able to catch up with his coaching staff and his players who are in rehabbing injuries. "It's been good to get back into it a little bit," he says.

Even though players and coaches were scattered across the country, Quinn says the team has had more in-depth conversations about racism and social injustice than ever before. The lack of real football activity has created more space for coaches and players to talk about the world outside of the game.

"All of us are becoming better listeners," he says. "Our natural reaction as a coach is to say, 'OK, here's a problem; let's go fix it.' I recognized early on that nobody was ready to fix it. They just wanted to be mad and have anger, and that's when I knew under the surface people are hurting. I wanted to give space to that. Would it have been the same space [if we were in-season]? Probably not. Would it have been the same time? Probably not. Would there have been space? Absolutely."

Quinn has been closely involved with the Falcons' social justice committee, which the team started in 2017 and put together in full force in 2018. He says it's been a "game-changer" for him to support causes his players were passionate about and to learn from them. Quinn pulls up an email with a list of all the initiatives the social justice committee has taken on in the last two years. They visited the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, spent time at the Dekalb County Jail in Decatur, Georgia, hosted the exonerated "Central Park Five" for dinner and a game, welcomed teens with incarcerated parents and more.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn struggled to understand the movement Colin Kaepernick helped spark but has come to see that merely giving players the space to speak about their concerns regarding social justice isn't enough.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn struggled to understand the movement Colin Kaepernick helped spark but has come to see that merely giving players the space to speak about their concerns regarding social justice isn't enough.Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

But Floyd's death convinced Quinn none of that was enough, so he joined the "Buckhead4BlackLives" march in June that ended at the governor's mansion. "I hope there is a before and after with this," he says. "Going to a protest just a couple weeks ago, you don't feel that passion on TV or on Twitter. You have to go and live it and be a part of it. It was my first protest that I had been a part of, but it is not going to be my last."

Quinn says he hasn't talked with Falcons owner Arthur Blank or general manager Thomas Dimitroff specifically about an organizational stance on kneeling, nor has he discussed the topic with his players yet, but recently he told a group of Atlanta media that if his players do choose to kneel, he'll be right there alongside them.

"Hell yeah, I'll support them," he says. "And I'll be with them in whatever they choose to do."

He admits that because of his close ties to the police and the military, it's taken him time to understand the motivation behind kneeling. 

"I think a lot of the country recognized, no it wasn’t about the flag, but at that time maybe there was a part of us that was fighting for it being offensive to the military [and police], says Quinn, who has several family members who are police officers and a foundation that provides NFL game experiences to military families who are stateside and care packages to soldiers deployed overseas. "Well, you know what is really offensive? Racism. We were trying to make sure all parties were happy.

"I can remember thinking, 'Yeah, there are a lot of good cops, too. Then you are taking away from the issues we are discussing. … You are ... fighting for something that doesn't need fighting for. Of course there are great cops, but that's not the issue we are discussing right now. I have come to a better space on that: to not fight about the good in something but make sure the issue is the issue."


It was a few days after the president of the United States called Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneeled "sons of bitches" that Dontari Poe first took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Then playing for Quinn and the Falcons, the veteran defensive lineman kneeled alongside teammate Grady Jarrett during the Falcons' Week 3 game in 2017.

Poe says Quinn made it clear to him that he supported him, and he saw the coach grow that season. A free-agent deal lured Poe about 250 miles northeast to Carolina, where he served on the Panthers' player impact committee in his two years with the franchise.

Now in Dallas, thanks to a contract he signed in March, Poe has been thinking about how to be active within the Cowboys' social justice initiatives while rehabbing a torn quad that landed him on injured reserve in November and required surgery. Per a team press release, in the last two years, Dallas players have met with local judges, police chiefs and attorneys to begin talks on how to restore trust between law enforcement and communities.

While Poe, who has been at the Cowboys facility nearly every day this offseason, says new head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula both voiced their support for the Black community and the fight against systemic racism during Zoom meetings with players, he has yet to hear from owner Jerry Jones, and the silence is noticeable.

"Haven't talked to Jerry at all," Poe says. "I hope he comes out and shows his support. … You are an owner of an NFL team—you get what I'm saying? The majority of this team are these people that are being oppressed. So even if you are not going to be in the forefront, we need to know we have your support in that type of way."

Both Poe and Reid say that players are definitely taking note of which owners across the league are voicing support and which ones aren't. Washington owner Dan Snyder is another owner who has not released a public statement, but a team employee says a statement isn't needed, because Snyder has been extremely supportive behind the scenes, meeting with staff and players and backing any and all ideas. Washington recently launched the Black Engagement Network, whose mission is to develop, recruit and retain Black talent at every level in the NFL through career management and professional development. Snyder also donated $250,000 to help initiate a series of town hall meetings about social justice in the D.C. area.

More recently, Snyder received pressure from stadium sponsor FedEx to change the team's name, which many have long criticized as a racial slur against Indigenous people. While first saying he had "no official plans" to make a change, Snyder has since announced a formal review of the team name.

Jones' leanings are a bit more mysterious. Though the team shared a video on social media calling for social justice, Jones was neither in the video nor mentioned. And while the Cowboys say Jones approves every video or statement released by the team, (and the team told B/R it represents "ownership sentiment on the subject") the absence of one of the most visible and vocal owners in the league is impossible to miss.

After involving himself in his teams' social justice groups the past few years, Dontari Poe has noticed Jerry Jones' silence now that he is a member of the Cowboys.
After involving himself in his teams' social justice groups the past few years, Dontari Poe has noticed Jerry Jones' silence now that he is a member of the Cowboys.Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

"His silence definitely means a lot because in any other situation [he] will have something to say about most things," Poe says. "I was once a proponent of doing stuff behind closed doors, and doing what I need to do not out in the forefront. ... So hopefully he is doing that, but who knows what he is doing. … Personally, I would hope that he comes out and says, 'OK, I am willing to help, I am willing to fight, and I am willing to be with y'all.'"

Fellow defensive lineman and first-time Cowboy Gerald McCoy also called out Jones on ESPN's First Take. "When things are not going well for the team, you can hear him screaming," McCoy said. "Well, this is life. This is bigger than just football. It's bigger than money. It's bigger than winning a Super Bowl. And something needs to be said."

Not all Cowboys players agree on this. Linebacker DeMarcus Lawrence said he isn't waiting for his team owner to chime in. 

"This whole situation has nothing to do with Jerry or anybody in Jerry's position," Lawrence told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr. "This is about us coming together and focusing on how we can make a change and how we can come together and be united. I don't see how one man in Jerry's position or any of those types of positions can make a change.

"The only thing they can do is give us money to make a change. What kind of help do we need from Jerry? We need to stand on our own two feet, be the [men] we are supposed to be and build foundations and build centers to help our youth."

No Cowboys player has ever knelt for the anthem, but Poe says he is "definitely leaning toward" doing so this season. "To be honest, if I did kneel, how could somebody say they don't understand it for what it is? If you don't understand it, then you just don't want to know it."


Demario Davis dials his phone and puts it on speaker. He's standing outside his hotel in Minneapolis, with fellow Players Coalition member Josh Norman. The two friends take turns talking fast, breathlessly describing a busy day in Minneapolis. "We are at ground zero, the heart of the problem," Davis says. "You are getting the exclusive from the heart of it."

They visited the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue where Floyd was killed. They met with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and several groups of activists to discuss necessary changes to the Minneapolis Police Department. And they ate soul food for lunch. This is their fourth city in a nationwide social justice tour that Norman, the Bills cornerback, felt compelled to undertake. He asked Davis, the Saints linebacker, to join him, and they quickly moved out. Atlanta, D.C., Buffalo, Minneapolis, and then on to L.A. in the morning. Stops in Tulsa and Dallas would follow.

Over the past few days and weeks, they've marched and met with mayors and activists across the country and had many conversations with their own coaches, owners and teammates. "This is way different than any of us have ever experienced," Davis says. "I would say this movement certainly feels like it has the potential to be much larger than the Civil Rights movement."

When the two stopped in Buffalo, they attended Mayor Byron Brown's press conference announcing police reform in the city. Norman signed with the Bills as a free agent in March and hasn't moved there yet. Because of the coronavirus, he hadn't spent much time there before this recent visit.

"That's the first time I came there as an athlete, but I was embraced by the people as an activist," he says. "That is always going to resonate with me in my career. Nobody can take that back. ... I hadn't played one down for Buffalo. I was somebody like them; I was on the ground to help find a solution to the police problem of the injustices people are facing there."

Davis sees their trip as something they not only can do but should do. "We have a 70 percent African American worker base," he says. "So there is a unique opportunity for the NFL to be leaders in changing black communities because of so many players that have so much influence in those communities."

Davis and Norman have been involved in the Players Coalition from the start in 2017, and the support they have received recently from players, coaches, personnel and former players is unprecedented. The Coalition collected 1,400 signatures on a letter to the United States Congress supporting a bill to end qualified immunity (a legal doctrine that gives police officers legal protections in civil court when accused of violating someone's constitutional rights).

"People are really breaking barriers to come," Norman says. "I mean, Tom [Brady] even came into the fold and ... he signed. So when you look at these things, there are people that really are not going to sit on the sidelines and be quiet."

More white players and coaches and staff are using their platforms to stand with the Black community than ever before. Baker Mayfield wrote on Instagram that he will kneel and doesn't care if he loses fans for it, adding that the issue of equality has "been ignored for too long and that is my fault as well for not becoming more educated and staying silent." J.J. Watt, who has rarely spoken publicly about social justice issues, tweeted that Floyd's death is "disgusting and impossible for anyone to defend. The situation could have been remedied many other ways, and those responsible should be held accountable. George Floyd should be alive." He also attended Floyd's funeral. Matt Ryan has helped raise over $1.2 million in a GoFundMe dedicated to advancing the Black community in Atlanta. Colts general manager Chris Ballard admitted he had been ignorant of the real problems of racial injustice in the U.S. "Like everyone, we didn't listen," he told the local media. "I didn't listen in '17."

Neither Davis nor Norman have thought about whether they might protest this coming season, and frankly, they are tired of being asked about it.

"We really haven't discussed nothing about demonstrations," Norman says. "But what we have discussed is solutions to problems. At the end of the day, what we do in that moment, we couldn't tell you, because we are not in that moment. At this time we are talking about solutions, so whatever that looks like going forward, if that is going to help the cause, absolutely. But I can't tell you what it is now, because hey, we're still in it."

Adds Davis: "How does it benefit the cause to continually ask about it? ... Every time we get on these phone calls they continue to ask us about kneeling. They ask about when we protest. There's a protest going on right now worldwide; that's the only protest that matters. Let's talk about the now. What are we doing to create solutions?... We all have a responsibility towards that. That's you, me and everybody else. The longer we continue to talk about these other topics that don't talk about injustice—that don't talk about George Floyd, solutions to police brutality, solutions to racial injustice—we are doing a disservice, and we are dishonoring these families that have lost lives. And we cannot do that. We don't have the time or the luxury. This is 100-plus years of oppression, and we need to fix that."

Davis heads into the hotel to speak with one of the oldest activists in Minneapolis. Norman has one last point to emphasize before he hangs up.

"I don't know what is going to happen in the next month or years to come," he says. "But I do know that this one moment in time, 2020, I'm stepping into my history. And whether you want in it or not, you are in it. Which side of the fence are you going to stand on?"

   

Kalyn Kahler is a writer living in Chicago. She's a former staff writer for Sports Illustrated and has covered the NFL for five years. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.