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Chargers’ Russell Okung realized he can’t be neutral over protests during national anthem

‘It doesn’t help anyone accomplish change, especially change on things that are really important’

Three weeks ago, veteran Los Angeles Chargers left tackle Russell Okung penned a thoughtful open letter in The Players’ Tribune explaining his evolution on the divisive issue of protests during the national anthem.

Okung encouraged players to “open up a line of communication just between” them about the most important issues in their movement. Players must remain unified while they continue to engage with owners and commissioner Roger Goodell in an effort to find a path forward together, and Okung is pleased about the dialogue on his side of the table.

“I’ve had like a good 30, 40 players reach out,” Okung said Thursday night. “And what I’m seeing is that guys are hungry for action and results. They want direction. They want to be informed correctly on what change can objectively look like. That’s where the hunger is.

“People want change. They hate what’s going on. That’s why they’re asking, ‘OK, what are the next steps?’ The question is, how do we galvanize in the proper way and give direction? How do guys best put in their time in the right places? Guys want to get it figured out.”

“That neutrality is actually hurtful to causes. It doesn’t help anyone accomplish change, especially change on things that are really important. And I would say that at first, I didn’t necessarily understand that. As I dug deeper, I saw this is a real issue.” — Chargers left tackle Russell Okung

Last season, Okung wasn’t a proponent of demonstrating during the anthem. But after reading a quote attributed to civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. about the failure of those who remain neutral in times of moral conflict, Okung decided to raise his fist while the anthem is played. “It really shook me,” he said. “Martin Luther King talked about how dangerous moderation is, and wanting to be comfortable and not wanting to shake things up.

“That neutrality is actually hurtful to causes. It doesn’t help anyone accomplish change, especially change on things that are really important. And I would say that at first, I didn’t necessarily understand that. As I dug deeper, I saw this is a real issue. And in terms of racial injustice and things going on in the country that are wrong, we need to speak up and use our voices to help people. The athlete’s ability to leverage [one’s] platform in this conversation … that’s long overdue. That’s why my opinion changed.”

Okung was among a group of players who attended the recent players-owners meeting in New York. He left the gathering disappointed over management’s insufficient reaction, in his opinion, to the players’ desire to partner with owners on criminal justice reform.

It appears that the process has stalled largely because players were outraged on learning about Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” comment while speaking with other owners and high-ranking league executives in New York. Considering that criminal justice reform is at the top of the list of the issues that players are risking their careers to illuminate, McNair could not have chosen his words more poorly.

Although McNair quickly issued an apology after the quote appeared in an ESPN The Magazine story, the damage was done. A proposed meeting between the sides this week in Philadelphia was postponed. Okung wasn’t surprised.

“People are starting to figure out that there’s a certain mentality that probably exists with the owners, not with all of the owners but definitely some of the owners, that we [players] are nothing but assets,” said Okung, who’s in his eighth season in the NFL. “The mentality is that we have a certain shelf life assigned to us. As long as we do our jobs and don’t rock the boat, there won’t be any repercussions. But things are starting to shift. Guys realize that this, what we’re trying to do, is so much beyond the game of football.

“I have my rights as a citizen, a minority citizen, and the power to speak up on these issues. Right now, it’s very unfortunate that Roger Goodell hasn’t really taken a stance on this, in terms of confronting certain comments like that head on. And the fact that so few NFL executives have supported us, their unwillingness to paint players in a good light for what we’ve been fighting for, has really made this even worse. It’s a complex issue, and I’m hoping things change, but I think it only will change with players holding both our clubs responsible and well as our league.”

Count Okung among the players who will keep the pressure on owners and the league. Now that he’s awake, Okung has no interest in being neutral.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.