Anquan Boldin’s preseason career with the Buffalo Bills amounted to one reception for five yards. Had he retired at any other time for any other reason, the decision would have been noted respectfully but quietly. Here is a 14-year NFL veteran less than two months shy of his 37th birthday electing to hang up the cleats. Pay homage to his 1,076 career catches. Note his 82 touchdowns. Remember he was an integral part of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, who won the Super Bowl. And move on.
But Anquan Boldin is retiring in this moment — in Donald Trump’s America, just more than a week after the horror of Charlottesville — because the moment calls for his voice and for his work.
“This is something that I’ve been dealing with for the last couple of years, to be honest with you,” Boldin said in a phone conversation Monday morning. “I feel more convicted than ever to step away from the game of football.”
This NFL preseason has its position battles and injury news. In those ways, it’s like any other. But it also has a striking element, one that offers professional football players the chance to be at the center of a national discussion on race and human rights, on what we believe in as a country. In this era in which players are routinely asked to “stick to sports,” Boldin decided to stick to the fight.
“My time will be spent doing exactly what I said I would be doing: fighting for equality, fighting for equal rights in this country,” Boldin said. Football requires players to think almost exclusively about, well, football. Boldin has too much else in his head and his heart to concentrate, any more, on his crossing route on third down.
“I didn’t short football; I gave it my all,” he said. “But I think in order for me to be as effective as I want to be, I don’t think I can split time.”
Boldin is in an unusual position as an athlete — active or retired — to push for discussion
and change because he has been pushing for it when people weren’t paying attention. He has spent time on Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers about criminal justice reform and the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve. He has headed a foundation that has supported — and listened to — underprivileged children. He has endured the pain of losing a cousin, who was shot to death at the side of the road by a plain-clothed police officer.
He watched the Aug. 12 events in Charlottesville as so many of the rest of us did: aghast. But in the aftermath, he said he received a call from a Jewish friend who had watched marchers boasting signs adorned with swastikas, who heard them chanting “Jews will not replace us,” that crystallized his thinking.
“We had a candid conversation,” Boldin said. “And like I told him, ‘Trust me, I understand what you feel. I understand what you’re going through.’ . . . As African-American people, we’ve been screaming these same things for I don’t know how long — well before I was born. And we’re still screaming the same things now. Unfortunately, people never really gave it the attention it deserves.
“Every time we talk about inequalities or injustices, the only thing that we get is that we’re complaining. What I said now is, it’s the time where it’s not just African Americans now. You have Jews screaming the same thing. You have LGBT people screaming the same thing. Now is not a war against African Americans. It’s a war against Americans, period.”
It is a war that NFL players are reluctant to fight, save for the select few. Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who began this discussion — as it pertains to athletes and their opinions — by kneeling during the national anthem a year ago, still doesn’t have a job. There are, of course, encouraging signs, because Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, an African American, stood with a defiant fist in the air during the national anthem prior to a preseason game last week, only to be joined by white teammate Chris Long in a show of unity and support. A day later, Seattle offensive lineman Justin Britt placed his hand on the shoulder of defensive tackle Michael Bennett as Bennett knelt for the anthem, and the two embraced afterward.
Boldin took note of both moments, and it’s clear to him: There is more, much more, to push for.
“From a societal standpoint, everybody says players need to stand together or there needs to be more white faces that are standing up and championing these causes,” Boldin said. “The part people are missing: It also needs to be coaches. It also needs to be owners. It needs to be GMs.”
Boldin points out the history of athletes speaking out, one that includes Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. But what if he and Jenkins, who have visited Capitol Hill twice to discuss their concerns, arrived next time with, say, Patriots owner Robert Kraft or Giants owner John Mara?
“I think whenever African-American athletes, or athletes period, go to Washington, we’re afforded different meetings that probably the regular citizen wouldn’t get,” Boldin said. “But I do think, also, there’s a different respect level if we had owners with us. For us, it’s one thing to get a meeting and for [members of Congress] to tell us to continue to keep the issue at the forefront. But I guarantee you, if you take owners in those meetings, there’s a different respect level that they would have for owners than they do for players. There’s a lot more that we would get from those meetings.”
Anquan Boldin has made his last catch. He has not spoken his last word. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, he has given up sports and is making sure he won’t be told to stick to them.
“Those things, they do light a fire under you, at least for myself,” he said. “I think those things do help with that conviction to get things done.”
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