BY JARED ODRICK
Take a step back from polarizing sound bites over the protests during the national anthem. Thinking rationally eliminates shallow banter and welcomes thoughtful change.
Toward the beginning of last season, after Colin Kaepernick had taken a knee, I was invited to join a group chat of a couple dozen NFL players to discuss protesting racial injustice during the national anthem. Richard Sherman said his piece, and the Bennett brothers said theirs, all while Chris Long did his best to make sure we got along. With each of us being the outspoken personality of our team, it felt like a continual effort to trump one another’s contribution. Some leaned toward public conversations with local police agencies through community outreach programs in lieu of protest. Some wanted to lock arms but continue to stand during the anthem. Others understood management would successfully dismantle unified protest efforts.
The chat became more annoying than productive. With the group unable to reach a consensus on a unified display, Kaepernick finally chimed in. He asked to continue to stand alone in his efforts. He asked that he be isolated in his stance so there could be no confusion about who he was and what he represented. He respectfully declined to “join forces” in a single gesture. At the time, it felt like a smack in the face, but it wasn’t. It was a sentiment I wasn’t accustomed to seeing from football players — pure, unapologetic independence.
Since that initial conversation, Kaepernick’s independent protest against police brutality has evolved into a social media controversy between those who call themselves patriots — or president — and those in the NFL who preach solidarity, with neither party acknowledging the actual issue at hand or working toward a solution. Waking up and seeing sensationalized headlines and derogatory claims against players advocating for change didn’t surprise me, but the ignorance from all parties pissed me off.
Over 17 years in football, you learn this football code, often disguised as a warrior mentality that relinquishes the individual. Those of us from small-town America, low-income families or struggling black neighborhoods are often most vulnerable to this dogma.
Team sports are beautiful. They provide so many life lessons to youth all over America and the world. Hoisting up a goal, larger than yourself, provides a sense of selflessness that is important in understanding coexistence. But we run aground when the goals of team sports blind the individual, robbing us of our sense of self. This is especially damaging when the sport deems you unworthy and unable to contribute to a team, much less to society.
The rapture of football sweeps us up, providing a righteous path for the otherwise statistically condemned. Professional football saves people from poverty, and the rescued tend to adopt the values and goals of the keepers of pro football: uniformity and collective profit. The system will support anything that allows itself to attain these goals and sever any player using its collectively large platform to represent anything outside of systemic servitude.
Pro football is not slavery, but like all American labor relations between the haves and have-nots in the U.S., its practices stem from the chattel economy. It’s a system set up by rich white men to fool young strapping black men into thinking they’re building their own identity, their own purpose, their own moral code. In reality, that code is written and enforced by the men in suits looking down from their skyboxes.
The conception of football, as well as our country, is relatively fresh. With the beautiful creations we call America and football comes the undeniably messy accomplice of afterbirth. We’ve marveled at our magnificent creations, disregarding the importance of the placenta and improperly crediting our existence as a nation. Instead of discarding this vital accomplice, we’re now realizing how nutritious it is for us to chew on it. Hopefully we will reach a point where this country recognizes the black community as a life source and not a blemished accessory.
“Put your body at risk. Have this surgery. Don’t ask questions. Do your job. Don’t speak on non-football issues unless we approve, because you’re going to make yourself and your organization look bad. Don’t branch out and pursue extracurricular interests because it will make you less of a football player, then we will like you less, then you’ll be of less value and we won’t pay you as much. You’re not being a team player, and if you’re not on a team, what would you be? On the street? At the car wash? You’ve got no skills other than this. You need this. You need us … so listen. We’re here for your best interest. Buy in. Turn your life over to the game.”
The people who buy in and have success in this economy, and go on to actual celebrity in a global sense, owe everything they have to this warped morality. Ray Lewis, much like many other star athletes who are hoisted on a pedestal by the game, is too high up to see the foundation that pedestal is built upon. Athletes like Lewis lack introspection but thrive in projecting their learned morality onto others when microphones are put in their faces.
People like Lewis crave the attention of sports talk shows because it fortifies the legend the system built. They bought into their own hype. If they were to question the very system that has given all that they have — the career, the stats, the records, the adoration, the wife, the house, the car, the foundation and the fame — they’d be questioning their very existence. Who wants to do that at 40 years old, with $20 million in the bank and a TV camera following you around? Why face reality when you can have your very own statue in front of a stadium? Memorializing yourself is the best way to suppress the real history, whether we’re talking about pleading guilty to obstruction of justice after being charged with double homicide or, in a broader sense, genocide and slavery.
Ray’s kneeling, weeks after condemning the protest, didn’t go unnoticed. It was quite an unorthodox stance for such a devout worshipper, seeing that Ray directly contradicted his statements from a month ago.
Most of us don’t end up like Lewis. We don’t get to be broadcasters, or coaches, or public speakers, because the world doesn’t adore self-sufficient black men. It opts for black men like Ray Lewis, who sang and danced to the right tune, or our white counterparts.
I remember playing in Foxborough while I was with the Dolphins, waiting at our own goal line during an instant replay review. My eyes panned around the stadium looking for my family, but I got distracted by the dozens of cutout faces of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Some of these cutouts were accompanied with big “MARRY ME” signs, held up by red-cheeked New England women wearing fuzzy ear-warmers. I tend to talk shit when I know there’s nothing else to do in the fourth quarter in New England but lose, so I walked up to LeGarrette Blount and asked, “Man, where’s your cardboard cutout? I see Tom, I see Gronk, I see Edelman, but no you? That’s funny, ain’t it?”
He chuckled, “man, you don’t think I know the score?”
So I ask you, who is your favorite athlete, and why? Is he being treated better than Colin Kaepernick?
Ok, now tell me this: Has this person ever spoken out about anything with true passion? Something he or she can’t receive residual checks from? Something that can’t be sold and worn by you or your kids?
Some NFL players protested, and many more didn’t, after President Donald Trump’s inflammatory words about athletes who choose to exercise their right to silent protest. I often wonder if those who remained standing ambivalently will regret their inaction when they exit the game.
Remember when Michael Jordan “broke his silence on politics” with the most apolitical statement of all time?
“I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers — who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all — are respected and supported.”
Thanks, Mike. You’re slowly becoming the villain I’m talking about. But it’s not your fault. It’s on all of us, collectively. We bow to money just as you bow to money, therefore providing the proper oversight of your hardworking publicist hammering out your urgent PSA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pinned you best: “(Jordan) took commerce over conscience.”
It’s sad what’s going on in Charlottesville. Is this the direction our country is heading? Make America Great Again huh?! He said that🤦🏾♂️
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 12, 2017
I love LeBron James and all of the potential he possesses in winning championships and making an impact in our communities. Unlike Jordan, his PR team has allowed his thumb to control his own social media interactions. But I do have to question his PR team for not recognizing the social media power he wields, allowing his official statement on Charlottesville to be reduced to, “It’s sad what’s going on in Charlottesville,” and “Our youth deserves better!” Plus his rash response to Trump’s jab at Stephen Curry: “U bum.” We cannot collectively reinforce LeBron’s hollow tweets. In the same breath, we cannot let the President reduce American injustices to hashtags.
Our youth deserves better!! Flat out
— LeBron James (@KingJames) August 12, 2017
While actively playing, I got away from the game as much as I could. I moved to Canada in search of a fresh outlook. I searched for perspective and truth because I knew the game and the people in it weren’t challenging me. I didn’t want to watch myself become the villain. The people around me were too busy admiring themselves and what they’d accomplished to ask what it was all worth.
In an age of virality, when a thousand retweets provide more validation than a single constructive conversation between peers, it is our responsibility to exemplify the change we want to see. There’s nothing stronger than refusing to entertain foolishness. Entertaining it and firing back in the same manner allows us to win via Twitter but lose in the long run, because nothing was done to formulate that response. You’re not forcing him to engage you or any of us on a higher level, one that can change collective thought and legislation. LeBron, in responding that way, you allow him to win. You and the rest of America want to react and be heard instead of conversing and be felt. “Man, we gotta do better than this” can’t be what we rally behind. It’s an empty statement, but no one has the courage to call him out on it because he’s the best at what he does, he’s big, he’s black, and makes for a good antithesis of Donald Trump. “Blasting” the president on Twitter is clickbait. It makes headlines, not change.
I’m not telling you, the fan, that you must support the likes of Kaepernick. I’m asking you to stop idolizing puppets and turning on the ones who reveal themselves as people with formulated opinions. When you invest your money in an athlete, whether you’re watching him in person or wearing his name and number on your back, he does not owe you his silence. He understands the risks of speaking out of turn, and he accepts the consequences. There is no money in the recognition of our sometimes painful existence, but there is money in its mindless escape.
Despite popular belief, the system does not weed out players; they weed out themselves. Kaepernick understands the system will never allow for individuals to function independently. The player who chooses to stand out has already ended his career.
Much like the way I will likely end mine.
There is power in numbers, but there’s a deeper truth in isolation. Kaepernick didn’t want money, and he didn’t want backup from any of us players. It was this exact anchoring in isolation that has allowed Colin’s truth to be illuminated in the face of doubt — from critics, detractors and even from his fellow colleagues and NFL alumni who still might not fully understand what it takes to develop your own voice.
It can’t be done in a group. It must be done alone. But alone, there is no football. There is no crutch. There is no platform beyond the merits of your own voice, which I’ve found can be a liberating thing.
Kaepernick’s isolation welcomed a sense of martyrdom that spurred the collective movement we currently see taking place. And that’s something I didn’t see coming when we first started the group chat so many months ago. Since then, I’ve been a part of a larger group chat, society or social media, and have exercised a strong sense of voyeurism. I take on that role because I don’t feel social media induces any conversation that is beyond headline, box score or skin deep. We’re willing to have an hour-long, in-depth conversation on elite quarterbacks but can’t seem to get past sociopolitical shouting matches. And those who do are blacklisted for the willingness to psychoanalyze our country.
Now that we’re here, don’t tell me who your favorite athlete is; tell me about your favorite person who plays sports.