It’s too early to say that Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were Three Days That Changed the NFL. Action has to follow words. But the seeds are there for change.
Those three days produced lots of anger, lots of words, one meaningful F-bomb, lots of vows, one very good video, one incredible cameo by an NBA Hall of Famer, lots of drama, tears from the leading passer in NFL history, a significant act of rebellion by a 27-year-old NFL person no one’s ever heard of, 20 NFL players flexing their collective muscle, a video for the ages produced and posted from a kitchen table in a small apartment in an L.A. neighborhood, an NFL star sticking it to the president of the United States, and the commissioner of the NFL saying for all to hear: “Black lives matter.”
The NFL is always dead in June. The NFL is not dead this June.
Football, like America, is a tinderbox right now.
A couple things first. Last column before vacation here. Over the next five Mondays, you’ll get five fun/interesting guest columns. Today, I’m excited about three things: the weird tick-tock of the cracklingly explosive events in the NFL . . . some prominent black men in and around the NFL looking forward to what’s next in the league and the world. (Houston safety Michael Thomas: “I’ve got to be the change I want to see.”) And in my annual Father’s Day book section, one of my favorite books in recent years, “Know My Name,” by Chanel Miller. Do you think I can get you to read/experience a hugely important book about sexual assault, the book that every incoming freshman at Duke will be required to read this year? “I have wondered how I can get more people, males in general, to sit with the book,” Miller told me. Well, we’ll try.
So, a really different column, in a really different time in our lives.
A timeline of three tumultuous days, all times Eastern:
Wednesday: The Preamble
11:41 a.m. Drew Brees, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, is asked about players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States,” Brees said. It’s a feeling the patriotic Brees has had for years. He’s said similar things before. But now the inference that Brees would disapprove of a black player kneeling to protest the oppression of black people was a lit match tossed into a bone-dry forest.
3:35 p.m. Today’s sports culture is interesting. Instead of reaching out to Brees and saying, Hey, that’s insulting to us, teammates and foes alike jeered Brees on social media—first wideout Michael Thomas, then safety Malcolm Jenkins, finally LeBron James. Brees got flash-bombed everywhere. “Sometimes you need to shut the f— up,” said teammate and Players Coalition leader Malcolm Jenkins, in an Instagram post he later deleted.
5:10 p.m. Meanwhile, Story Two was percolating and about to boil over. As with many NFL employees, NFL social media creative producer, Bryndon Minter, 27, was angry with the NFL’s word-salad response to the George Floyd murder and the ensuing outcry for a firmer message. Early in the week, with the Floyd killing beginning to dominate society, Minter told his bosses he didn’t want to do business as usual. He couldn’t in good conscience post “Five best Jalen Ramsey interceptions,” and he couldn’t sit by while his employer wasn’t out-front with an action plan for the Floyd story. So Minter, who is white, did something that he knew could cost him his job. What if he could get a player, or players, to voice what they were feeling, adamantly? Working virtually from his kitchen table in Mar Vista (in West L.A.), Minter sent a message to Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas, who’d been reacting strongly to the death of Floyd. “Want to help you create content to be heard around the league,” Minter wrote to Thomas. “I’m an NFL social employee and am embarrassed by how the league has been silent this week. The NFL hasn’t condemned racism. The NFL hasn’t said that Black Lives Matter. I want [to] help you put pressure on. And arm you with a video that expresses YOUR voice and what you want from the league. Give me a holler if you’re interested in working together, thanks bro!” Minter said he did not expect a response.
5:33 p.m. He got one, in 23 minutes. Thomas, in New Orleans, answered. He was interested. What could they do? Minter envisioned players telling the NFL they needed to be supported more, and the highest levels of the league needed to come out unambiguously and say peaceful player protest was okay, racism in any form was not, black lives matter, and listen to your players. Thomas okayed the project. “We have the channels—we need the content that can share our voice,” Thomas said. Minter and co-worker Nick Toney, working from his home in New York, went to work.
11 p.m. Minter pinged Thomas and said he’d have a script ready for him to peruse that night. Minter and Toney, bi-Coastal, worked using a Google Doc to add and subtract copy. At one point, one said, “My God! Michael Thomas is in on this!” They kept trimming. “It needed to be snackable,” Minter said. Because Thomas thought he could engage several players to be in on the video, Minter and Toney wrote lines for multiple players. One of the key lines they wanted multiple players in a Zoom-like checkerboard to say was, “WE, the players of the National Football League.” To show the game IS the players. Thomas would lead the video. Minter and Toney wrote this for the emerging leader and young star whose Twitter feed @Cantguardmike is one of the league’s rising social accounts, as if Thomas was speaking directly to Roger Goodell, and for Thomas and other players to lead the video with::
“It’s been 10 days since George Floyd was brutally murdered. How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd?”
Thursday: The Wheels Are In Motion
2 a.m. Thomas got the script after midnight in New Orleans. Loved it. Meanwhile, he began engaging some of the league’s biggest stars to be involved—at the same time he was dealing with the three-alarm fire of what Brees said, prepping for a major Saints team meeting on Thursday. “I’m in awe of how Michael balanced these two huge things,” said Minter. “While simultaneously dealing with the Drew Brees situation and figuring how to handle that, he’s texting all these guys around the league to be involved in this project. Once he was in, he said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll get the best of the best for this.”
8:22 a.m. Drew Brees on Twitter: “I am sorry, and I will do better, and I will be part of the solution. I am your ally.” On CNN, Saints linebacker Demario Davis supported Brees, saying the mark of a leader is admitting a mistake.
10 a.m. By the time Minter woke up, he’d been sent files from Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks of the Vikings and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott. Odell Beckham Jr. sent his files on iCloud. Minter told a supervisor what he was doing, so as not to blindside him, knowing that the supervisor would send the information of this rogue video up the food chain. “I was at peace with whatever happened, at peace with the prospect of losing my job over this,” Minter said. “If I was told I was losing my job in the middle of this, I’d still have put the video out. I was just the vehicle for the players having a voice.”
1:15 p.m. Ordering breakfast in the drive-through lane at Chick Fil-A, Minter got confirmation that Patrick Mahomes was in. Mahomes, the new face of the league; that was big.
1:45 p.m. Jets safety Jamal Adams, via cameraphone from his driver’s seat, sent his “WE, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” and raised his right fist in a black power salute. Mahomes’ video, recorded in his shoe closet, said “WE, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.” This was a kernel of an idea 20 hours ago. Now, Minter knew, it was going to be huge. “When I saw Jamal’s video and his passion, I got goosebumps,” Minter said. “That’s the same emotion my black colleagues working in the league have.”
2 p.m. The Saints team meeting commenced. In a 100-minute meeting via teleconference, Brees emotionally apologized—that much we know, and we’re pretty sure it included tears from Brees. We don’t know a lot, though, because Payton and the Saints threw a news blackout over what happened in the room. I’m guessing the Saints coach is going to channel his inner Parcells over the next couple of months. Noted tough guy/mental-game-player Bill Parcells is a mentor for Payton, who I’d bet will try to find a way to make this this an us-versus-them thing, us against the divisive forces of all media—including the social-media missives from other NFL players and in other leagues.
The weird part of the story is there was one non-Saint in the Zoom meeting: Shaquille O’Neal. The team has guests speak to some virtual team meetings (Snoop Dogg did the honors on one meeting in May), and Shaq happened to be on the schedule Thursday. So there he was, watching the most emotional and important Zoom meeting in NFL history—it’s not a very long history—and when Shaq spoke up, he had something to say. Something, it turns out, that made him quite a valuable participant in this Zoom meeting. As one ear-witness said, O’Neal told the coaches and players words approximating these: They’re going to try to divide you, just like they divided us with the Lakers! Me and Kobe [Bryant], we had a great thing going, but the media divided our team. We could have won five more championships! Stay strong. Don’t let the media divide you! Don’t let social media divide you!
5 p.m. Working on his NFL-issued MacBook Pro on approximately 100 video files of all different quality from 20 NFL players—including Deshaun Watson, Stephon Gilmore, Odell Beckham Jr., Saquon Barkley, Jarvis Landry, Tyrann Mathieu, DeAndre Hopkins and newcomer Chase Young—there was only one player missing: Giants receiver Sterling Shepard. Thomas very much wanted Shepard, and his “I am Laquan McDonald” line, in the final product. Amazingly, the video was just about ready and captioned less than 24 hours after Minter broached the idea to Thomas.
6:32 p.m. A new and bolstered NFL statement was issued for the @NFL Twitter feed. “We stand with the black community because Black Lives Matter. Through Inspire Change, the NFL, Players and our partners have supported programs and initiatives throughout the country to address systemic racism. We will continue using our platform to challenge the injustice around us. To date we have donated $44 million to support hundreds of worthy organizations. This year, we are committing an additional $20 million to these causes and we will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work. We know that we can and need to do more.”
The NFL kept hearing from its employees that its previous statement was weak and didn’t clearly state it condemns racism—even though its work with the Players Coalition, including a May 26 meeting with Coalition leader Anquan Boldin, laid out a platform of work it would do this year in police reform. The league had been thinking of bolstering the message since Tuesday, so this new statement wasn’t spur-of-the-moment. But it did end up beating the players video by 2.5 hours. “Hearing the league say ‘Black lives matter’ was a start,” one player said.
8:15 p.m. Minter got the video file from Sterling Shepard. “I am Laquan McDonald.” He shoehorned it into the video, polished it, and sent the final product to Thomas. “This is the most insane thing I’ve done in my life,” Minter said. “Unheard of from a creative standpoint.” Less than 28 hours after virtually meeting Michael Thomas, an iconic video (and it will be) was created and posted, and it will affect how people view players, perhaps for a long time.
8:45 p.m. In a text to Minter after watching the video, Thomas wrote: “Amazing work. You are elite.”
9 p.m. The video posted on Saquon Barkley’s account, and seven minutes later Michael Thomas posted. A hit. What was so compelling about it is the tinge of anger that accompanied messages from such widely respected players. Mathieu, for instance, is one of the best leaders on any team in football; Andy Reid gave him a strong leadership role on the Super Bowl Chiefs last year. He was speaking directly to Goodell when he said: “How many time do we need to ask you to listen to your players?” Neatly woven together are 20 voices, saying this: “We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit … So on behalf of the National Football League, this is what we the players would like to hear you state: We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
“A message on behalf of the nfl” pic.twitter.com/iilDpnZfyV
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) June 5, 2020
9:30 p.m. Sitting in his home in Washington, D.C., former player Donte’ Stallworth, who was politically active as a player and is even moreso now, watched the video. He pumped his fist. “YES! YES!” Stallworth said. Later, he said, “The players are finally wielding this power they’ve always had. I loved it.”
Friday: Black Employees Matter
10 a.m. “I’m going to make a video,” Goodell announces to his executive team on a regular morning videoconference. (League employees are still working from home.) The video was powerful, as were several emails to Goodell from black employees, who make up about 10 percent of the league’s off-the-field work force. One spoke of “hopelessness,” and that got to Goodell. There was a league town hall, co-hosted by M.J. Acosta and Steve Wyche of NFL Network, scheduled for 1 p.m., with Goodell and three guest speakers to discuss race and the state of the league and the country. On the Zoom invitation were 12 faces of black people killed by police in recent years. On another Zoom meeting during the week, about 200 employees, the majority black members of the league’s chapter of the Black Engagement Network, met virtually. “It was a ‘Let it out’ session,” said Jarick Walker, 31, an influencer and talent marketing manager for the league. Walker is black. “A lot of people [black employees] were feeling frustrated. But we got to the point where we weren’t afraid to voice it anymore.”
1 p.m. The 100-minute virtual Town Hall was emotional from the start. One person in the meeting said it was actually Jarick Walker’s question/plea that was the most riveting. Walker was prepared. He was the first employee to speak. “I was outspoken,” Walker told me. “My point, basically, was this: I am unsure where we stand. The NFL is the American sport that brings us all together when disasters happen. The NFL brought the country together after 9/11, after Karina. Here’s another disaster. The NFL’s not bringing us together. Why? We’re America’s game. We need to hear from the mountaintop that we as a league condemn racism.”
When he finished, Walker said, the Zoom Town Hall, with hundreds on it, was silent. “I was shaking,” Walker said. “I broke down in tears.” If Goodell didn’t know now how his black employees felt, he did now. And though he’d already decided to come out strong with his own video, this was another brick in the wall.
3 p.m. Goodell, in a blue sweater in his home 15 miles north of the league office in Westchester County, recorded his 81-second video for posting that evening. He said:
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.
“I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country.
“Without black players, there would be no National Football League, and the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff. We are listening. I am listening.”
4:08 p.m. President Trump, who had once urged NFL owners to fire any “son of a bitch” NFL player for kneeling during the national anthem, criticized Brees for apologizing to his teammates and to the country. NO KNEELING, Trump said. All caps. Now the ball was in Brees’ court.
6:31 p.m. The NFL released Goodell’s statement on Twitter.
We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter. #InspireChange pic.twitter.com/ENWQP8A0sv
— NFL (@NFL) June 5, 2020
7:10 p.m. Drew Brees rebutted Donald Trump’s criticism for apologizing by tweeting: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when? We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities.”
7:18 p.m.: Michael Thomas retweeted Goodell’s statement with this line: “Well said Roger.”
10:14 p.m.: Thomas retweeted Brees’ response to Trump with this line: “MY QB” with the flex emoji.
At 5:44 p.m. Saturday, Minter got an email from Goodell. Goodell thanked him for the “powerful and impactful” video. Goodell told Minter he’d love to get him more involved in the league’s social initiatives.
Where the NFL goes from here is a lot like where the country goes from here. Will the push continue? Will the 32 owners in the league, who have the real power, back their commissioner’s words when 15 players on some team choose to kneel during the anthem this year? And make no mistake—that’s coming. How will hardliner Jerry Jones react to a cadre of players kneeling? The threat of the NFL sanctioning players if they kneeled during games in 2018 (a bylaw was passed but never enforced that allowed players to stay in the locker room but not kneel during the anthem) is fresh in players’ heads.
One of the most vocal pro-protest players, Houston safety Michael Thomas, said in a text to me: “It [Goodell’s words and the league’s admission of holding player protests back] is definitely a step in the right direction. However, I personally believe that people are going to call for the league to address what happened to the players who originally protested police brutality and systemic racism and oppression. They will ask that the league not only admit they were wrong for suppressing the voices of the players protesting, but also say their names, just like it’s important to say the names of the countless black people who have been murdered due to police brutality so they don’t die in vain. It’s important that the league says the names Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Kenny Stills. It will allow the players to fully believe them and we could then all move forward together.”
Employees seemed more hopeful.
Maurice Jennings, who is black, is a senior director of influence and brand partnerships at the NFL. From Maplewood, N.J., he said: “I believe in the brand as a unifying force, and this week rejuvenated me. This week has been powerful and historic, because I feel like black voices helped lead the change. I think it’s the beginning of some change in the league. No one was going to settle for ‘not good enough.’ “
From Hollywood, Jarick Walker said: “What really struck me from Roger’s statement was, ‘Without black people, the NFL wouldn’t exist.’ That’s powerful, coming from him. After the town hall, I got so many messages, some from people I didn’t even know. One person emailed me, ‘Thank you for being so brave.’ You know, for the first time, I felt like I wasn’t on an island.” Walker paused for a minute, then said: “You can’t help feeling you changed the system.”
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?
“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.”
Nuggets from an interview with Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, with opening day of the 2020 regular season scheduled for three months from this week:
The season. “I remain very optimistic that we will play the season as scheduled,” Sills said. “None of us has a crystal ball. Three months is a long time.” He said the games will be played “hopefully with fans.”
Testing. A month ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci told me essential personnel for sports teams should be tested multiple times per week. Sills said that was still being decided, in consultation with the NFL Players Association. But, he said, “likely it will be multiple times per week. It is a surveillance program.”
How many positive tests per team in a week would cause that team to have to quarantine. Undecided, Sills said. “We expect to have new positive tests,” said Sills, and he has said this before. In my hypothetical to Fauci, I asked what would happen if, say, four players in one week tested positive, and Fauci said that team would have to “shut it down,” meaning the team being quarantined for two weeks. “I don’t think we’ve made a final determination there,” Sills said. Hard to imagine another team being willing to play a team that’s taken three or four positive players off the field that week.
The “second wave” of the virus. (Experts predict that could come sometime in the late fall or winter.) “All of us are considering that,” Sills said. “There’s a saying in this community, ‘All models are wrong, but some are actually useful.’ “ Meaning he’s monitoring models of when the virus could resurface in the United States, and though he’s attentive to it, there’s no way of reliable predicting when or if it will return—though a return is widely predicted by epidemiologists.
The hidden concerns. Sills has had conversations with medical officials of several sports leagues that have resumed play—including the German Bundesliga, World Rugby (the governing body for the sport of rugby union) and the Australian Football League (an Aussie rules league). In those talks, Sills learned he will emphasize mental as well as physical well-being among NFL players. “The disruptions to the social fabric, and the isolation of players, has created some stress points,” Sills said.
Sills made a telling comment on Adam Schefter’s podcast last week about the season being three months away, and how long a period of time three months is when considering what can happen with a virus. Three months ago—March 8—most of us were living fairly normal lives. New York was a week away from its first Covid-19 death. The NBA had 11 games that day, with seven in the NHL and 18 in baseball spring training. I bring that up because so much of what Sills told me was conditional, or unknown. It’s a fool’s errand to predict the future of a disease that has killed 110,000 of us in 110 days. That’s why the NFL has to prepare for everything, knowing that almost anything can happen in the next eight months. In that time, the league hopes to hold training camps at team facilities, have 65 preseason games at regular stadiums, play 256 regular-season games and 11 playoff games, culminating (the league hopes) in Super Bowl LV in Tampa—exactly eight months from yesterday.
“If we were to play today, what makes sense to put into play to safeguard teams to the largest possible extent—we have to recognize that will almost certainly change,” Sills said. “So flexibility is something we have to have.”
The offseason has been odd, and it’s certain the regular season will be too. “As one of our athletic trainers said, ‘It’s not going to feel normal because it’s not going to be normal,’“ Sills said.
And as I wrote after talking to Fauci, it’s imperative that the designated Infection Control Officer for each team—often a team’s head athletic trainer—be on top of cleanliness and behavior at each facility and with all players. One GM told me he thought this ICO would be crucial to each team, as important as the coaches who game plan each week. Because if that team official is lax on the job or doesn’t emphasize distancing to players when they leave the facility, it could lead to multiple positive tests.
“We feel the Infection Control Officer is going to play an important role,” said Sills. But he wanted to be clear about this: “Everyone’s going to be responsible for a team’s environment. Everybody’s got to be conscious about wearing masks and hand-washing and social-distancing away from the facility. Everyone has a role to play. Everyone shares the risk. Testing, cleaning, separation in physical distancing—it’s not a one-person job.”
Where I think the ICO will be vital is educating players and essential staff when they leave the facility. Young men are not going to like being told, Please do not go to crowded bars and clubs on Thursday and Friday nights . . . particularly when the virus has settled down. And maybe ICOs won’t have to be mamma bears about this if the virus has disappeared from certain areas of the country. You don’t want to babysit players. Then again, it’ll take only one infected player inside a team to spread it.
One other thing no one’s thought much about: Imagine players leaving for their bye weeks. Normally, no one cares where they go. But what if a player wants to spend four days at a faraway place that’s suddenly a hotspot? Lots of questions have to be dealt with this year that have never had to be dealt with before.
“It’s impossible to maintain a bubble atmosphere,” Sills said. “And obviously it is crucially important how people take care of themselves when they leave the team environment. We’ll be doing a lot of education in that regard. But everyone is dependent on everyone else in his organization.”
This all started in the column years ago, when I said people should buy the dad in their lives a book instead of another tie. We just don’t read enough. I’m as guilty as most. With Father’s Day 13 days away, you’ve got plenty of time to go to bookshop.org, the independent bookstore website; those local stores make about $2.38 per hardcover book. This year, I’ll recommend four of them—with the top one a fabulous book. Every one is absolutely well, well worth reading.
Remember the Stanford rape case? In 2015, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting 22-year-old Chanel Miller (known at the time as “Emily Doe” for privacy reasons) while she was unconscious outside a frat party. Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault but served only three months in jail. The lenient sentence got the veteran judge in the case recalled, booted from the bench. Last September, Miller went public for the first time, releasing her name on the spine of this stunningly intimate and honest book.
You might ask why, in a football column, I would write about a book detailing the story of a sexual assault and the stark detail and the play-by-play of how the life of a bright and intelligent woman was nearly ruined, and who, five-plus years after the fact, is still affected by this event daily. I’m writing about “Know My Name” for three reasons.
One: It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent years, on any topic. I’ve often thought my job as a writer is to take people where they can’t go and tell them things they can’t know (a week in the life of Gene Steratore’s NFL officiating crew, for instance, in 2013, and more recently, inside the virtual Tampa Bay Buccaneers April draft). Miller takes the experience of a sex-assault victim and walks you through every single moment of the blurry night it happened and how it has affected her life every day since. It is unsparing and raw and really important. Miller’s enmity at the assaulter and his lawyer is voracious, unsparing and exactly how you think you’d react if people were trying to discredit you, just to get away with something. And it surprisingly hopeful in parts; Miller has found a haunted yet rewarding life. She’s a great writer. Some of her sentences are incredible. “Sex goes to court to die,” for one.
Two: Although it’s emotional at times and the writing brings you to your knees, it’s also more clinical and just-the-facts-ma’am than you’d think from a women describing how her life came tumbling down from a chance meeting with a stranger, and from that stranger’s attempt to get away with a crime, and from so many people’s attempts to minimize what happened to her (judge included). In short, it explains everything about what happens to a woman who has been assaulted. I mean, everything. Such as: “What I never say out loud is that rape makes you want to turn into wood, hard and impenetrable. The opposite of a body that is meant to be tender, porous, soft.”
Three: Men should read things like this. They just should. They should realize what this crime is, and how ruinous it is, even if they’re never going to commit it, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. Men should know what is in front of mind of half of the human race.
The writing will carry you from beginning to end quickly. (Two days for me.)
On the long-term effect of being assaulted: “A long time has passed since I was in that courtroom, but I worry I will forever be stuck on the stand. My mind is one step behind where it used to be. I call it the lag. Before I was living in real time. Now I evaluate the moment before I can move into it. I am always asking permission, anticipating having to present myself to an invisible jury, answering questions before a defense. When I reach for a piece of clothing, the first think I think is, What will they think if I wear this? . . . The time I spend questioning what I’m doing, turning things over and talking myself back to normalcy, has become the toll.”
On the way her life has turned depressing yet uplifting: “I spend more days curled up than I do exalting, constantly reminded of how much is stacked against victims. But no matter the despair or exhaustion, I believe the wanting of a better world and being here to see it will never go away. The wanting is enough.”
In her victim statement, read in court and distributed worldwide, on Brock Turner saying one night of drinking “can ruin a life:” “A life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine . . . You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you … You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
I connected by phone with Miller on Friday evening. I explained to her who I was, and about my Fathers Day book section, and trying to reach outside the traditional male book world. When I reached out to try to speak to her, I figured she’d either think it was a waste of time and say no, or say sure—the more readers the merrier. I wondered what she thought of a football writer wanting to write about the book.
“Actually,” she said, “I was super excited when you reached out. I have wondered how I can get more people, males in general, to sit with the book. In the events I have done, I’d say 98 percent of my audiences are female. That is hard to see. When men come, I sometimes wonder if they feel like they need permission to enter the space. Sometimes it seems a girlfriend wants to come to the event, and the man stands tucked away. No one’s going to grill you, accuse you! Come in! I believe we will get a substantive change [in behavior] when men will engage.
“I need more people than survivors to read the book. Maybe you’re intimidated by the graphic nature of it, but that’s just humanity. There’s nothing in this book that people cannot empathize with. When I was sitting in the witness stand, snot on my upper lip, gulping and weeping into the microphone, it was like soiling myself publicly. It was so embarrassing. I realize that when you sit in a box in front of a room full of total strangers, with a man you don’t know who has sexually assaulted you watching you, crying into a microphone, in front of people many of whom are openly hostile to you, I realize how much strength there was in what I was doing.”
Miller speaks quietly and calmly, but powerfully. Her writing is the same. I said I was impressed by the fact that she was so blunt about the fact that this will never go away, that her life will be different forever, and she’s willing to share all of that. She’s a runner, and she says she’ll never be able to jog at night anymore.
“Why is it important to you that men read this book?” I said.
“Men listen to men,” she said. “A case like mine, it’s easy for a guy to say, ‘I would never do that. I’m a good person.’ Okay. But I would challenge men that there are so many smaller instances in daily life that impact our lives. If you hear a woman-hating joke, are you going to call it out? Confront that person? Why not? If you are silent on the little things, we pay for that. Victims pay for that. If you don’t confront it, you are signaling that this is okay. That is the danger.
“Step into the moments of discomfort. That is all that I ask. Victims are out there being torn apart in courtrooms. If you see something that feels off, please recognize it. It’s wrong.”
We were about to get off the phone and Miller said: “Hey, I got some good news. Duke is buying a shipment of the books. They’re making it required reading for the entire freshman class.”
I’d love to make it required reading too.
My three other selections:
The Body: A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday). I am used to chortling at Bill Bryson’s books. He can be the most hilarious writer, as when he wrote about his family’s toity jar growing up in “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.” So this book is not particularly funny at all. It’s just a tour of the human body with some of the oddest factoids. You blink 14,000 times a day. There are 42 quarts of water in a 155-pound man. That kind of stuff. My favorite section was about the sense of smell. We have more than 350 odor receptors, but only half are in every person. A scientist dedicated to the studying the sense of smell offered a vial with a liquid in it for Bryson to smell. He smelled nothing. A third of smellers smelled nothing in the vial. A third smelled urine. A third smelled sandalwood. Thus the complexity of one part of the body’s function we rarely even consider. The book is not a page-turner, but it’s an entertaining way to learn a bunch of things we should know about us.
The Hot Hand: The mystery and science of streaks, by Ben Cohen (Custom House). Once, in a high school baseball game in Connecticut, I batted against an all-state pitcher from East Hartford. I tripled my first time up, on the sweet spot of the bat. Then I singled. Then I lined out. Then I tripled again, even deeper than the first time. When I got to third, my coach, Bob Bromage said, “Man, you’re hot today. What got into you?” In our daily paper, the Journal Inquirer, there was a little headline the next day. KING CARRIES HOT BAT. So . . . other than to brag, I bring that up because it’s one of the reasons this book appealed to me. The author, Cohen, actually had the same kind of day in a high school basketball game once. What I appreciated about the book is the science in it (there’s a great item in a Jed Lowrie baseball section about the odds of an umpire calling a called strike three when the count is 0 and 2), but also the human greatness part. Cohen writes about Steph Curry and what an amazing shooter he is, and why does he get so hot . . . but you’ve got to shoot all day, day after day, too. And the part about the sugar-beet farmer on the North Dakota-Minnesota border is gold. It would have been easy for Cohen to interview 10 athletes with streaky lives in sports to dig into why they’d be hot one day and stink the next, but the science is more interesting.
The Boy From the Woods, by Harlan Coben (Grand Central Publishing). Harlan Coben lives in Jersey. Huge Giants fan. I wish he’d write a football whodunit. That has nothing to do with this book, of course—I just wanted to say it. I feel bad because I ran out of clock and have not finished this one yet, but let me pay the highest tribute to Coben: I’ve always devoured the new Grisham book in two or three nights, and I’ve considered Grisham the kind of the legal-thriller genre. Coben’s genre is wider, but my point is his writing, and his crafting of a story to pull you in, is as good as or better than Grisham. In this one, local girl Naomi Pine has gone missing, and a local TV attorney turns to The Boy From the Woods for helping finding her . . . and of course the chase involves secrets of powerful people. My favorite two paragraphs so far, about little Naomi’s disappearance.
Everyone assumed that she’d run away.
Four days after that, a severed finger was found.
“This has certainly been an event-packed offseason.”
—Buffalo coach Sean McDermott.
“I saw Drew Brees’ comments, and they were extremely disappointing. Shows a lack of self-awareness, or care, for the plight of your teammates, your peers, for your countrymen … If you can’t see now in 2020 with the whole nation on fire and people screaming for equality, and if you can’t with the same vigor that you like to denounce the protests during the National Anthem, denounce the murder of George Floyd, denounce the murder or Breonna Taylor, denounce the murder of Ahmaud Arbury, denounce systematic racism, commit yourself to making this country better without criticizing those who have exhausted every single resource that they have to make this country better, and this country has not stepped up to the plate, you have not stepped up to the plate. To stay silent while your peers are screaming from the mountaintop that we need help, our communities are under siege [pause while getting emotional] and we need help. And what you’re telling us is, don’t ask for help that way, ask for help a different way. I can’t listen to it when you ask that way. We’re done asking, Drew.”
—Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, in a plaintive cry to quarterback Drew Brees after Brees said he could not support anyone who kneeled for the National Anthem. Brees a day later apologized.
“I’ve been ignorant. I’ve been ignorant to the real problem, and I’m ashamed of that. I just came to the realization over the past 10 days with some really hard and difficult conversations that we’ve had as an organization, with the team, with my family and with my sons. This is not a black problem. This is a white problem. This is an issue that we have to talk about, and we can’t sugarcoat it. We can’t sugarcoat our way out of this. We can’t go back into our bubble, because that’s what we’ve always done.”
—An emotional Colts GM Chris Ballard, after a series of conversations with players, coaches and staff of the Colts, and with his family.
“I love that people are upset. But don’t stop. It’s one thing to protest, but do something. Don’t go back to being silent again because then it is going to happen again.”
—Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians.
“You know Jennifer Aniston is following you, right?”
—A close friend of former NFL player Emmanuel Acho, after his Instagram followers shot up by more than 100,000 in the day he posted his blunt and insightful “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” on Instagram last week.
“White Americans might have been compelled to look in the mirror by the George Floyd lynching, but largely they still look away from the realities of black life – and they most certainly will continue to condemn activist athlete protests which are likely to continue and intensify. There has never been a protest against race-based injustice to which mainstream white America has said `Amen.’ “
—Longtime sports psychologist Harry Edwards, to Tim Layden of NBC Sports.
Interesting football note from the week: Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians announced the Bucs will be a base two-tight-end team in 2020. That’s rare, and interesting on a number of fronts. It means Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich are intent on protecting Tom Brady with an extra big body—assuming Rob Gronkowski (265 pounds), O.J. Howard (251) Cameron Brate (245) split the tight end duties in some way this season—at the partial expense of speed and the deep-passing game. That would seem to fit Tom Brady’s strong suit, moving the chains and throwing intermediate above all.
It will be a change for the Bucs. Last year, they played “12 personnel” (two tight ends) on 22.4 percent of the snaps. That’s still more than the 2019 league average of 20 percent, per PFF.
As to who might get his role diminished if the Bucs play 12 personnel, say, 40 percent of the time, my guess is Chris Godwin, who really blossomed as an intermediate and deep threat with Jameis Winston last year. The bigger and more physical receiver of Tampa’s dynamic duo, Mike Evans, seems likely to be targeted more by Brady.
In the first 36 hours that former NFL player Emmanuel Acho’s “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”—a nine-minute video of Acho, who is black, answering questions some white friends have put to him since the George Floyd death—was up on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, 9.6 million clicked on it to watch. By Saturday, it was up to 20 million. Here it is:
Dear white people,
For days you’ve asked me what you can do to help. I’ve finally found an answer.
Let your guard down and listen. pic.twitter.com/74SVv8XOqp
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) June 2, 2020
I’m not in the programming business, but, particularly in the current TV sports vacuum and with the tenor of the country the way it is, ESPN should expand this into a half-hour TV special. Soon.
Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Saturday, June 6, 2020, 3:30 p.m.:
Drew Brees backpedaling better than Deion Sanders. Smh! ITS WAS NEVER ABOUT THE FLAG OR THE MILITARY…. but we All know that.
— Joe Haden (@joehaden23) June 4, 2020
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden after the Drew Brees apology Thursday.
Want to really stand for racial justice? Change your name. https://t.co/XTlIJrfNx4
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) June 2, 2020
U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, after the NFL’s Washington team tweeted in support of Blackout Tuesday.
2020 is gonna be a bad year for the “shut up and play” sports fans.
— rebkah howard (@pink_funk) June 2, 2020
Rebkah Howard is great on Twitter.
Yesterday Missouri football players marched from campus to courthouse, knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor George Floyd, then 62 of them registered to vote. This is how change happens pic.twitter.com/VvYEF7I3VP
— Ari Berman (@AriBerman) June 4, 2020
Ari Berman writes for Mother Jones.
In support of Kaepernick. From Bartomiej Lyczak, of Torun, Poland: “This is how my room looks like now. This is the jersey I wear when I go out now, even though not many people in Poland know who Colin Kaepernick is. Even though there are not many black people in Poland, I believe problems with racism, homophobia etc. are global. When Kaepernick first knelt before the game, I knew he was on the right side of history. And the events of last week clearly show it. He paid a huge price for standing up for what he believes in but he was right. Hey, Peter! Thanks for your sustainably great weekly column and for being Peter King.”
Well, I appreciate you reading over in Poland, Bartomiej. A lot of people around the NFL are now realizing there was wisdom in what Kaepernick did and said. I hope that extends to the highest offices in the NFL, for months and years to come.
Brees should be forgiven. From Joe Dodi: “I am white. I am a Saints fan. Maybe that lessens the value of what I have to say. Maybe it doesn’t. I am also Jewish. And while definitely have not experienced racism on the same level as most black Americans, I have experienced anti-semitism. And in a small way can relate. I saw Drew’s comments and like most people I was very disappointed. To me it was very tone deaf. Then came the deluge of emotional reactions from his teammates and fellow football players. Then he came out with his apology the next morning, and while many accepted it and tried to bring the focus back to the real issue, many more refused to accept that he was being sincere and continued to berate him.
“Drew Brees has done more for the predominately black city of New Orleans than any other single person alive today. His entire career he has been praised for his class and doing things the right way. I don’t agree with what he said. I do think it was more than just an unfortunate mistake. It reflects a way of thinking that is toxic. But to call him a racist is asinine. Drew Brees is a very, very good person. His heart is in the right place and his actions reflect that. I think that most white Americans think like he does and that is a problem. However, he listened. He understood that what he said was very wrong, and he apologized. It’s a real shame that a lifetime of honest, really good actions was destroyed in a single moment.”
Thanks for writing, Joe. I doubt that it’s been destroyed. Time heals wounds. We’ll see.
Glad to hear this. From Bryan Barry, of Misawa Air Base in Japan: “I love the stories you suggest in your column. Please suggest more! I recently subscribed to the Athletic purely because you kept suggesting stories from them. I’m happy I did. The more stories you suggest, the more great writing I’ll be exposed to so please keep it up. If I have to subscribe to some sites to read great writing then I say it’s more than worth it.”
Fantastic, Bryan. Thanks. And thanks for your service.
1. I think in the wake of the Brees firestorm, I have three thoughts:
• The real story now is between Brees and his teammates. Whether we think his social-media apology was heartfelt or just words to put out a fire he started, Brees can do nothing about the outside world throwing angry tweets at him. All he can do is build bridges with teammates who were and maybe still are angry with him. Now, it’s about the workplace, and whether Brees’ last season as a player (presumably) can be all about football and not about a quiet civil war. His relationship with Malcolm Jenkins is important inside the team. Let’s see how Brees gets along with the leader of the Players Coalition.
• Brees deserves a chance to make things right with his team and his city. No player in the 36 years I’ve covered the NFL has done more for his adopted community than Brees has done for New Orleans in his 15 years as a Saint. If you forget that, you’re not being fair. Brees grew up in Texas, went to college in Indiana and lives in the offseason in San Diego, but from the time he signed in wounded New Orleans post-Katrina, he became the Saint of (Almost) Lost Causes. Once, when I was writing for Sports Illustrated, I was in New Orleans to write about a quasi-secret society of 10 local entrepreneurs who kicked in $25,000 to $50,000 a year, and met once a year to decide how to split the pot to fund projects of little businesses torn asunder by Katrina. Walking into a restaurant for their annual meeting, Brees was stopped by a man and his wife. “Drew! We just wanted to say thank you,” the guy said. For what, Brees said. “For coming to New Orleans.” Not for winning so many big games. But for just coming. When Covid-19 struck, Brees gave $5 million to Louisiana charities and causes, by far the most money any player (and most owners) gave to their communities. Being ticked off at Brees, I get that. Abandoning Brees, to me, seems shortsighted.
• An idea. Let Brees, either with or without his team’s help, do something legitimately helpful to the black community. (As if he hasn’t done a lot already.) I don’t know what that is. Brees knows the causes in a scarred city much better than I do. Maybe it’s education-related, for the youth of the city. Whatever, he should find one and throw himself into it. Without cameras.
2. I think if you want to support a worthy cause, there’s a great and worthwhile event Tuesday night—Boston Uncornered, a group that tries to steer gang members and youth prone to violence into better lives through education and peer influencers. Noted TV journalist Andrea Kremer will host, and Patriots safety Devin McCourty will be the honoree. He’s a perfect choice, one of the most socially conscious players in the league and perhaps the most aware athlete in the New England hotbed of sports. “It’s an unbelievable honor,” McCourty said. “What this organization stands for is important. A lot of people like to help different causes, but you don’t see many people who want to help gang members and former gang member by educating them, maybe giving them stipends to change their lives. To be able to raise some money and honor this organization is a huge honor for me. It’s humbling.”
This is one of the things I appreciate about McCourty. The conversations we’ve had always veer into life, and his passion to help those not in his athletic or social or financial world always shines through. “Life is about more than football,” he said. “I remember after we won our first Super Bowl, within two or three weeks, all the talk around the team was, How do we win another one? Which is understandable . . . but it just shows you there was no fulfillment in that one thing. You’ve got to be a person too.”
3. I think I’ve never seen an offseason like this one. Never. The news never stops, ever.
4. I think—and those who have read this column for a while know how much I appreciate good graduation messages—these are a few of the messages from virtual graduation speeches that hit me right this spring:
ELI MANNING, RETIRED FOOTBALL PLAYER
“Country music artist Jason Boland has a line in one of his songs that could have been written for me. I won’t sing it, but the lyrics go like this, ‘I have a harmless habit of being fine wherever I am.’ You see, I don’t mind being in awkward situations or doing things I don’t necessarily want to do. Like becoming the Giants backup quarterback after winning two Super Bowls and walking away with the MVP. Embracing awkward is worth cultivating, because life, like this graduation, rarely goes as planned.
“Grownups—that’s what you are now—have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Get used to it and accept the challenge. Everthing isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be. Because when you accomplish something difficult, something really hard, the end result typically is much more meaningful. People have a way of toughening up when they refuse to run away from the obstacles in their lives.
“Everyone should walk into a hospital’s pediatric cancer floor. At first, you might not feel like you’re making a difference. When you sit and look a sick child in the face, you may not know what to say. But you decide to stay, and you ask questions to get them to talk about something they want to talk about. Believe me, I’ve squirmed through these situations more often than you can say, but despite my discomfort, it lifted their spirits and put a smile on their face. Just because I was there for them. When people experience tough times, reach out to them. Be generous with your kindness.
“Don’t downgrade your dreams to fit today’s halting reality. Don’t let the new normal be an excuse for standing in place. It is up to you not to become the class that never was.”
HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SENATOR AND SECRETARY OF STATE
“Good friends will get you through even the worst times, so stay in touch with them. Always send thank-you notes. Being polite is not the same as being politically correct. Treat others as you want to be treated. Learn how to sew on a button. Check the source of everything you read or share. Vote in every single election, not just the presidential ones. Believe in science, including vaccinations. Wash your hands. And if all else fails, try meditation or alternate nostril breathing. I did it before three debates with Donald Trump, so trust me, it really is a good technique for dealing with stress.”
CHELSEA HANDLER, COMEDIAN
“Embrace rejection, whether it’s from a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a coworker, or a boss. Rejection doesn’t feel like something you want to embrace, but rejection is never permanent. Just like success is never permanent. The sooner you can embrace rejection, the sooner you get through it. Usually, rejection catapults us all into this ball of despair, and insecure thoughts, and this self-consciousness, and have I ever made any right decisions, and am I fake? Am I even good at my job? And we have to remember that when we go through those times in our lives, those are thoughts that are happening in our heads. These thoughts are only our thoughts. No one else defines you but you. Your perseverance and your tenacity is what people will remember. It’s not that you will fall down because we know everyone falls down, and it is how you get back up, and that you continue to get back up. What other people think of you is never as important as what you think of yourself.”
TIM COOK, APPLE CEO
“Think about an undocumented father, ignored or scorned by his community, who is putting himself at risk in the fields today to feed his family and yours. Think about a single mother, who stocks shelves at night and drives a city bus in the morning, without whom so much would fall apart. Think about the hospital orderly, scrubbing down the ward on hands and knees, whose work today is as solitary and sacred as a high priest purifying a temple. Most of all, think about how you—blessed with a world-class education—might act and work and be differently when all of this is said and done. Memorialize in your heart the way in which these times reveal what really matters: the health and well-being of our loved ones, the resilience of our communities, and the sacrifices made by those, from doctors to garbage collectors, who give their whole selves to serving others.”
MALALA YOUSAFZAI, ACTIVIST
“Like all of you, I’m also missing my graduation ceremony this year. And we are not alone. Across the world, Covid-19 has forced more than one billion students out of school. For most of us this is temporary. We’ll continue our education and follow our dreams. But many girls, especially in developing countries, will never return to the classroom. Because of this crisis they will be forced into early marriages or low-paying jobs to support their families. When schools reopen their desks will be empty. They are our peers. They have the same right to education as we do. So, I ask you to remember them today as you go out and change the world. Don’t leave them behind. The class of 2020 won’t be defined by what we lost to this virus but by how we responded to it.”
5. I think that won’t be the last graduation speech Eli Manning gives in his life. What great perspective on sports, and on life, that he has.
6. I think football lost a great player and person Sunday with the death of Cincinnati safety Ken Riley, who was 72. In a 15-year NFL career he had 65 interceptions—fifth all-time—and he’s always on the list of Hall of Fame candidates just barely on the outside. It’s interesting that he was first-team all-pro once in his career—at age 36, in his last season, 1983, when he had eight interceptions for the Bengals. He was as quiet and unassuming as they come, but a hugely admired leader on some competitive Cincinnati teams, including the Super Bowl team that lost to young Joe Montana in Super Bowl XVI. He’s one of those players the Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee has studied extensively and has given a lot of support to. I’m not a member of that committee, but I’d support a long look at him.
7. I think we’ve got to get used to a new normal in 2020 if there’s going to be football, and it’s smart for team to not go away to training camps this summer. But I’m really going to miss Latrobe, Pa. (Steelers), Oxnard, Calif. (Cowboys) and Spartanburg, S.C. (Panthers).
8. I think Adrian Peterson saying he’ll kneel this fall before games makes him the first of what I expect to be many who will say that. Or who will simply kneel when the games start.
9. I think these words from Malcolm Jenkins—”We must not make the grave mistake of allowing the world to fall back asleep”—are apt one to end this historical week.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Sportswriter Paragraph of the Week: Steve Serby of the New York Post, on the third race at Belmont Racetrack last Wednesday, the first day the track was open (minus fans) since the pandemic hit New York:
“Race 3 featured odds-on favorite Fauci, ridden not by Dr. Anthony Fauci but by Tyler Gaffalione. Alas, Fauci could not flatten the curve around the backstretch and placed, 4 ¾ lengths socially distanced behind Prisoner.”
b. Radio Story of the Week: Leila Fadel of NPR, with a moving story on a Somali restaurant owner whose business was burned down in the rioting in the Minneapolis.
c. “She always cooks with love.”
d. “People are crying for help: Fix this.”
e. A GoFundMe drive was started for Mama Safia’s Kitchen.
f. That’s the power of good people right there. That’s the power of reporting: $228,969 raised in four days.
g. Essay of the Week: Tim Layden of the NBC Sports on the misunderstood black athlete. Layden writes:
“Sports cannot fix a centuries-old problem. But sports can help. But not just the athletes. It is time for much more of the audience to better understand the entertainers. Until that happens, there is a wall between two sets of Americans. There is adulation, but not respect. Awe, but not appreciation. Fanaticism, but not empathy.
“Not healing, wounding.”
h. Podcast of the Week: The New York Times pod “The Daily,” with host Michael Barbaro allowing criminal justice reporter Shaila Dewan to guide listeners through what will make criminal justice reform so difficult, despite the voracious American appetite for change.
i. The unions are so strong for police, and juries are naturally inclined to believe police, even when the evidence is heavily weighted in other directions. Particularly in Minneapolis, the police union is going to make it difficult for convictions. “The Daily” had a very good interview with the Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey, to put an exclamation point on that.
j. Folks, this should NOT be the small print in this story. These podcasts are important to understand the challenges of bringing officers to justice for the killing of George Floyd.
k. I’m sorry. Baseball is stupid, stupid, stupid.
l. Each side, all prideful, chests puffed, all We’re not giving in to the other side. You are killing the game. Just killing it. Here’s America, with nothing to do, nothing to watch, and you’d have an entire month (July) with NOTHING ELSE ON TELEVISION EXCEPT PEOPLE RE-WATCHING SOME NETFLIX CRAP FOR THE THIRD TIME AND YOU COULD OWN THE SPORTS AND TV LANDSCAPE FOR AN ENTIRE MONTH BUT NO, NO, NO.
m. Blame each other. No one cares. No baseball means no baseball. I’m bummed out as a fan. But more than that, I’m incredulous that your relationship is so poisoned that neither side has the guts to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. For the good of the game, and for the good of the future of the game, we’ll bite the bullet and go back and go 80 percent of the way to your proposal and let’s just play. The game’s bigger and more important than the real possibility of going 18 months without playing it.”
n. I’ll be away till July 20, but the column will go on. Every Monday there will be a columnist in my place, beginning June 15. You’ll be in great hands. And I will be back on July 20.
o. A few important dates in my life coming up: June 10 is my 63rd birthday . . . June 14 is the 40th anniversary for me and my lovely wife Ann . . . and we’ll have a somber remembrance in Connecticut on June 20 for my brother Bob. It’s 10 years since he died on Father’s Day 2010 while on a bike ride over the hills he loved in northeastern Connecticut, after celebrating Father’s Day with his family. His was a life so well lived, and so many of his friends and family miss him every day.
p. Take care of each other.
One thing is for sure.
The times, they are a-changin’.
We all must see it.