Just over two years ago, a handful of Black NFL players banded together and produced a video that New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley posted on his Twitter page. It was their reaction to the week-and-a-half-old police murder of yet another Black man, George Floyd, which spawned peaceful and raucous protests across the nation.
“What will it take?” one player pleaded.
“For one of us to be murdered by police brutality?” another asked rhetorically.
Then one player declared: “We will not be silent.”
It was raw. It seemed organic. I hoped it was sincere.
But last week suggested it was performative at best.
Among the demonstrating players — who included Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, DeAndre Hopkins and Odell Beckham Jr., to name a few — was Washington’s Chase Young, whom a Sports Illustrated FanNation writer praised for fearlessly taking a stand as a rookie.
But since Young’s defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, at the start of last week created a controversy for himself with a tone-deaf response to a tweet explaining the importance of the congressional hearings into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by a mob of Donald Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol, Young and his Black teammates have been deafening in their quietness. What has made their self-muteness piercingly painful is that Del Rio equated the Jan. 6 insurrection to the protest of police lethality unleashed on Black people, which Young and other Black Washington football players pronounced they would speak out on forever more.
This moment is why the attention paid to political activism on the part of Black professional athletes — at least the men — is wildly inordinate. As a lot, they aren’t that deserving. I’ve not forgotten that the vast majority did not demonstratively support Colin Kaepernick’s protest, save for one weekend when spurred by Trump’s verbal assault of their mothers. And Black players take up seven of every 10 roster spots in the NFL.
Black women’s pros, on the other hand, haven’t shown such trepidation about standing up to authority, even when it’s diametrically opposed to their best interests. Black players for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream proved as much by forcing out former senator Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican, as a co-owner after she wrongly accused the Black Lives Matter movement of being antisemitic and fomenting violence across the country.
I’d be remiss not to criticize the brothers of Black women’s pro athletes if I’m going to harangue those for whom they toil for doing so little when the time demands they do so much more. I should also share some smoke for White NFL players who didn’t criticize Del Rio for dismissing as a “dust-up” the Jan. 6 riot against the lawful certification of President Biden’s election, a riot that resulted directly in five deaths.
The Post reported Saturday that Del Rio shut down his Twitter account. On Friday, Coach Ron Rivera announced the team fined Del Rio $100,000 for loudly wondering why the Floyd protests — which eventually forced the toppling of the monument to Washington’s racist team founder, George Preston Marshall, outside RFK Stadium — weren’t being investigated like what happened at the Capitol.
But I’m not as mad with Del Rio — who voiced his opinion, no matter how absurd — as with the Black players, who said they would no longer see something and say nothing when it comes to lethal policing of us and our own — and then did just that. What happened to all that energy, represented two summers ago by Dwayne Haskins, the team’s first-round quarterback hopeful who died tragically two months ago, in a post to his Twitter page from a Floyd protest in downtown D.C.?
It’s not all their fault. I’m uncomfortably reminded that they are products. They’re products of a system, the athletic culture, one in which they’ve been inculcated for so long that their learned allegiance is to the authority of any coach rather than to any greater principle. To wit, Washington defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said last week when asked about Del Rio’s comments: “At the end of the day, you can have a difference of opinion and still respect one another. I feel like that’s what our country is about. That’s what our team’s about. So, I mean, me personally, I don’t care about his opinion as long as he shows up every day and works hard. That’s what I want from my defensive coordinator.”
And what of Jason Wright, whom the franchise patted itself on the back for making the first Black president of an NFL team? What of the face of what the team has suggested are its racial justice efforts?
How about the Black Engagement Network the team promoted just a year ago? As Rivera announced then, its mission is to “… work with organization executives and leadership to provide support, education and racial equality initiatives in communities across the Washington, D.C., metro area where our employees live and work.”
Anyone heard from the town hall program the club put together then, which it said comprised six Black employees, including senior executives Doug Williams and Malcolm Blacken, as well as Jennifer King, whom the team celebrated last season as the first Black woman to serve as an assistant position coach in league history? Of course not.
It shouldn’t be necessary to have a scheduled news conference or media availability to make a comment — not when a coach is conflating an investigation of a violent assault on democracy with Black people reacting so determinedly to an existential threat. The Black women on the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx didn’t wait to be asked how they felt about the police killing of Philando Castile. When they met the media, they made his death, and nothing else, the public’s business.
Washington’s minicamp is scheduled to open Tuesday. Let it be an opportunity for its Black players and officials to redeem themselves.