Behind the T-shirt and message NFL players will be wearing in Week 1
How Texans safety Michael Thomas played a role in creating the design
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When Houston Texans defensive back Michael Thomas takes the field for the NFL opener on Thursday, it will be a thrill to wear the uniform of his hometown team. But the occasion will be extra special for Thomas when he sees players from both teams wearing T-shirts featuring a social justice message that he helped design.
“Honestly, I can’t put into words how I’m feeling going into the game,” Thomas said. “A year ago, me and my team put together a company. This week, every player in the league is going to be wearing a shirt I had a hand in designing. Just surreal.”
The front of the black T-shirt will read: “INJUSTICE AGAINST ONE OF US IS INJUSTICE AGAINST ALL OF US.” On the back: “END RACISM.” The shirts, which were created at the request of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), will be worn on the field by all players before every Week 1 game as a show of solidarity.
“It’s a message of unity,” Thomas said, “while speaking directly to what we’re fighting for in this movement.”
The idea to create a shirt for NFL players was pitched in July by Dior Ginyard, a senior manager at the NFLPA, which launched a social justice task force in June. Ginyard noticed athletes from other sports supporting the WNBA by wearing orange hoodies and T-shirts.
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He also knew that Thomas, a member of the NFLPA executive committee, had launched a T-shirt company a year ago with his longtime friend and local Houston artist Willie Holmes to help promote the Aldine Sports Association youth group that the eight-year NFL veteran founded.
Thomas and his Texans teammate, Kenny Stills, were approached by the NFLPA with the idea in July and soon all parties were taking part in a Zoom call for a brainstorming session. Within a week of that first call, Thomas, Stills and Holmes had come up with seven different designs.
An early design, favored by Stills, was deemed “too aggressive,” though Thomas said there’s a chance it still might be sold one day through his company.
“It was a shirt that read, ‘Am I Next?’ A black shirt with white letters and a red question mark, with drips that some might say was blood,” Thomas said. “Too much? Maybe.”
The NFLPA wanted a product all the players would feel comfortable wearing.
“We know that there are different levels to which our players are engaged in social justice,” said Brandon Parker, communications manager at the NFLPA. “We had a few messages that we went over. It was important to have a message that represented where everyone stood.”
Within two weeks, under the guidance and expertise of NFLPA designer Vogue Wilborn, a shirt was created that all the collaborators felt happy about. The shirt was sent to the NFL for approval Aug. 10, and the design also had to have the stamp of approval from Nike, which holds the league’s apparel rights.
“Nike saw it and thought the design was dope,” Thomas said. “They could have come to us and said, ‘Nah, we can do better.’ They came to us and asked if they could produce it for us, instead of us producing it ourselves. For Nike to make our shirts, it’s an unbelievable feeling.”
For Thomas, this is not the first time he’s been involved in the movement against social injustice that has increased in scope since the death of George Floyd in police custody in May. When then-San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to speak out against social injustice in 2016, Thomas, then playing for the Miami Dolphins, was one of the players in the league who bravely followed suit.
With no real protections as an exclusive-rights free agent, Thomas, who was in his fourth NFL season, risked his career by taking a knee.
“I listened to what Colin had to say about why he chose to protest, and it was exactly how I was feeling at the time after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling,” Thomas said. “I had no thoughts of protesting the anthem, but I had to use my platform to let people know what was going on was wrong.”
Thomas took a knee alongside Stills, his Dolphins teammate at the time, and against the wishes of his father and mother, who died recently.
“I was an exclusive-rights free agent, the team had no ties to me and could have let me go with no guarantees,” Thomas said. “My parents, while backing the protests, were against me doing it because they worried about my career.”
Thomas went through with the action of taking a knee after consulting with his wife.
“My wife is my backbone, and she said, ‘I’m here with you, and if that’s how you feel, you need to take a knee,’ ” Thomas said. “For me and Kenny, we knew we were taking a knee for the right thing and we wanted to be on the right side of history.”
In 2020, the ugly events that have occurred between law enforcement and unarmed citizens have led to the NFLPA launching a social justice task force that will take on many missions, including partnering with the NFL to establish a fund to support college education for children of police brutality victims and working with More Than A Vote to combat voter suppression and push for sports venues to be turned into polling places.
It’s also led to the creation of a T-shirt to address the issues for which Kaepernick sacrificed his career.
“It’s great to change the narrative, change the conversation and get many people to finally address there is a problem with systemic racism,” Thomas said. “But the work isn’t done. What’s the next step? How do we make change?”
This week, the NFLPA’s message will be seen by anyone tuning in to NFL games.
“It’s going to be amazing to see the whole NFL rocking these shirts with the backing of established big-dollar companies,” Thomas said. “For the NFL, it’s a sign of how far we’ve come.”
Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.