Washington Redskins Coach Ron Rivera said Wednesday that he will support any of his players who kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. Before doing so, Rivera said he reread the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the amendments and the president’s oath of office. He believes those documents support those fighting for equality.
“Black lives matter,” Rivera said. “We can’t be afraid to say it. I will say it again: Black lives matter.”
From the start of Wednesday’s virtual news conference, Rivera was forceful and thoughtful in his condemnation of the killing of George Floyd in police custody and nationwide racial injustice. Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins echoed Rivera later in the day during a news conference of his own, and they both emphasized the need for actionable change.
Haskins said he hasn’t decided whether he will protest this season, but he and Rivera committed to supporting players who have said they will, such as running back Adrian Peterson.
“For me, it has been ‘black lives matter’ my whole life, my whole parents’ lives and their parents’ lives,” Haskins said. “We just can’t … just stop talking about it. We need to get a plan of action and bring unity to this country. That’s all I want.”
The Redskins organization announced that it is launching a Black Engagement Network for professional development and cultural understanding, as well as a town hall program led by six black employees, including Senior Vice President of Personnel Doug Williams, Senior Director of Player Development Malcolm Blacken and coaching intern Jennifer King, a former police officer.
Owner Daniel Snyder donated $250,000 to get the programs started, Rivera said. The coach praised the actions of rookie edge rusher Chase Young, who participated last week in the viral video of NFL players calling on the league to listen to its players, and Haskins, who attended a recent protest near the White House.
It was Haskins’s first protest. The show of emotion and unity impressed him and, he thought, signaled something bigger. Haskins believes his attendance at the rally and decision to speak out about racial injustice are part of a broader personal growth and his development into the face of the franchise and “a man about my business.”
“I feel like everybody in this day and age likes to just talk, and I wanted to be about action,” Haskins said. “Instead of me just making a tweet or doing a video, I wanted to go to an actual protest and be a part of the people … to understand and hear the hearts that are crying out for help.”
When Floyd’s death started to receive national attention two weeks ago, Rivera believed it was crucial to be thoughtful in his response. He worried about seeming insincere because, as one of the four minority head coaches in the NFL, he understood racial injustice but not necessarily the specific difficulties of the black experience. “I know, but I don’t,” Rivera said.
Haskins appreciated his coach’s reflection. For him, Floyd’s death resonated because he has been grappling with these thoughts on race his whole life. The 23-year-old recalled multiple instances when he has been pulled over by the police.
“I mean, it’s crazy,” Haskins said. “You get pulled over, and they ask: ‘Are you selling drugs? Do you got something in the car I need to worry about?’ I play quarterback for a football team in the NFL. You would think that you wouldn’t get asked those type of questions. But this is the world we live in.”
With those experiences in mind, Rivera consulted with sports psychologists, clergy, friends and family — including his oldest brother, Steve, a former police officer — before holding a team-wide Zoom call with more than 200 people to address the issue last week. He added that speaking for the organization, which he didn’t do during his time with the Carolina Panthers, is something he will have to get used to.
This situation is, for Rivera, something of a do-over. In September 2018, when Rivera was coach of the Panthers, Carolina signed one of Colin Kaepernick’s former teammates, safety Eric Reid, who said he went unsigned that offseason because of his vocal support of the quarterback’s mission. Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice after consulting with former NFL player and U.S. military veteran Nate Boyer.
Rivera said he felt “a little rushed” then. He talked to Reid and understood the protests were not about the military, an important part of Rivera’s life, but he still felt uncomfortable. The coach’s father, Eugenio, was a warrant officer in the U.S. Army, and Rivera grew up on military bases across the country and globe. Now Rivera wants to ensure he gets this right and that people understand he supports the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“Because of how long the peaceful protests have gone on, real change is within our grasp,” he said. “We’ve seen it with some of the governmental moves in cities like [Minneapolis]. I just think that there is a chance to do good right now.”
Rivera also said he highlighted the importance of listening, telling his nonblack players during their team meeting that they need to really hear their teammates so they can empathize with what they’re going through.
“You really can’t understand, because you are not in their shoes, but if you can feel their pain and listen to their pain, I think that helps you,” he said. “[It] shows them that you care about them and want to help. For everyone to come together, I think the change can be made.”