Super Bowl LIII

RISE and The Undefeated bring activism to Super Bowl LIII

Roger Goodell, Arthur Blank and other NFL VIPs go to the MLK National Park

It was a scene not to be expected, not even during Super Bowl week — Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue standing rapt outside the national park that was Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home. The men listened as his youngest child, Bernice King, and his niece, Angela Farris Watkins, shared fond memories of the civil rights martyr’s joyful childhood. But then, Bernice King’s smile faded as she recounted the one anecdote that she believes changed her father’s life (and America’s) forever.

Bernice King (second from left), CEO of The King Center, listens as Angela Farris Watkins (right), niece of Martin Luther King Jr., speaks during a tour of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and the center on Jan. 31.

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When King was a child, he would cross the street to the corner store, where the owners’ son would be waiting for his friend to play. One day, when King was 6 years old, his regular routine of waiting for his friend was stifled by the boy’s parents. They told King the two boys would no longer be able to play together — the friendship was over. Perhaps, according to his youngest daughter, who was 5 when her father was assassinated, King lost a friend but gained a purpose.

Blank, Goodell, Tagliabue and the gathered crowd seemed moved by those words as they continued on to tour the house where King was born and raised.

From left to right: Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons; Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner; and Bernice King, CEO of The King Center, talk during a tour of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and the center on Jan. 31.

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They walked the streets of his neighborhood and ended the day at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King delivered his last sermon on Feb. 4, 1968, two months before his assassination at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

View of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King gravesites during a tour of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and The King Center on Jan. 31.

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Detailed view of mini-statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in The King Center during a tour of Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and the center on Jan. 31.

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The effect of racism, social injustice as well as poverty and the resultant activism were discussed during the tour and dissected later in the day during the 4th Annual Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) Super Bowl Town Hall.

“I think that there was a generation of players who became acutely aware of Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — among other things, the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Tagliabue said. “Some of those players — Mel Blount of the Steelers, Herman Edwards, Kermit Alexander, John Mackey, Gene Upshaw — in conversations I’ve had with them, they all turned out to be leaders in the NFL on issues of race and collective bargaining issues and equity for the players. That generation, I think, set the stage for the current generation. The current generation has the unique opportunity because of what prior generations have done.”

Tagliabue participated in the panel with RISE chief executive officer Diahann Billings-Burford, Atlanta Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, former NFL player Brian Banks, Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam and NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent. The panelists also discussed systemic disparities in the criminal justice system when it comes to minorities. Banks knows all too well how unfair the justice system can be, especially when it comes to being pressured to take a plea.

From left to right: Moderator Jason Reid; Ricardo Allen of the Atlanta Falcons; Dee Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns; Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations; and Brian Banks, retired NFL player, participate in the RISE 4th Annual Super Bowl Town Hall on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

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Banks had a bright career ahead of him. At 16 years old, he was ranked 11th in the nation as a linebacker and ready to begin what he knew would be a fruitful football career. Until he found himself in a jail cell, accused of kidnapping and sexual assault. Officials believed Banks’ case was so severe that he’d need to be tried as an adult. If Banks opted to fight his charges in court and was found guilty, he could have been facing a sentence of 41 years to life in prison. His bail was set at more than $1.15 million. After waiting a year in prison, Banks broke down and accepted a plea deal.

“I lost 10 years of my life,” Banks said. “Football opportunities and everything. All for the young woman to come forward 10 years later and admit everything was a lie. I think it speaks a little bit further beyond what put me in jail but what puts many of us in jail. You look at the statistics right now, 95 to 97 percent of criminal cases in the United States ends in some form of plea bargain.”

Banks believes some of those convicted, though innocent, are scared into deals, exhausted into deals or tricked into deals. “I experienced all three,” he said. Banks recognizes the flaws in the system and hopes telling his story and being educated will help prevent others from going through the same ordeal.

Former NFL player Brian Banks speaks during the RISE 4th Annual Super Bowl Town Hall on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

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“This is a system that you see these things happen often, and you have to ask yourself not why are these things happening but how did we get to this point to where these things are happening. I think if you get to the root of it all, you’d understand how it’s grown to what it’s become today.

The panelists acknowledged that some fans may view the NFL’s social justice awareness and causes, such as the Players Coalition, as unnecessary distractions, but they believe recognizing these causes outside of the game is a step in the right direction for the organization.

From left to right: Moderator Jason Reid; Ricardo Allen of the Atlanta Falcons; Cleveland Browns owner Dee Haslam; Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations; and Brian Banks, retired NFL player, onstage during the RISE 4th Annual Super Bowl Town Hall on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

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“I think the fans are really concerned about they just want to watch a football game, and I do think it’s our responsibility to deliver the product on the field. But the players are human beings that have hearts and minds, and they care,” Haslam said. “This is a generation of young men that care deeply about their communities and they want to see change. I think the platform does allow them to do that and they’re out there working in the communities and talking to the police officers and involved with the kids. The impact they can make is so tremendous, and I think the communities will see that.”

“The game is a byproduct of who you are as a human being,” Vincent later added. “We as athletes, we have to be able to deflect and build. Don’t get into the rhetoric about what someone may say. We all have a responsibility, a collective responsibility, to do better by mankind. … That’s our role: to fight for that individual, to be a voice for those individuals that come from our neighborhoods.”

They all agreed that there’s no end to the fight for equality in sight, but all players should use their platforms responsibly and speak up for what’s right.

Moderator Jason Reid shakes hands with RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford during the RISE 4th Annual Super Bowl Town Hall on Jan. 31 in Atlanta.

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“I’m a true believer in to whom much is given, much is expected. … I think even if you do it on a smaller level or on a quieter stage, you have to do something,” Allen said. “If it’s not giving money, give some time. Go back and teach some kids, take them under your wing. Text a couple of people and check on them. Educate each other. It’s a lot of people I hear say, ‘It’s not my lane.’ But I still feel like it’s my job, it’s my title, it’s my life’s goal to make the world a better place. I think everybody has a chance to impact and change a community and change people. It should be required.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.