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Social Justice

Players union confronts questions of social justice

It faces the same black-white divide that exists outside of sports

They walked into the ornate AFL-CIO building on 16th Street in downtown Washington, D.C., Tuesday evening with almost a swagger – 100 or more amateur social-justice ministers, proclaiming change is a comin’.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” said Joe Briggs, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) counsel, reciting June Jordan’s 1978 Poem for South African Women.

Well, yes and no.

This is indeed a time of elevated racial consciousness in American life and sport – a moment unlike any in almost five decades:

Missouri college football players precipitate the departure of a university chancellor, threatening not to play until he’s gone.

NBA superstars at an awards show plead for unity among police and the people of color they’re sworn to protect.

A backup biracial quarterback for a bad NFL team sees beyond the Super Bowl, kneeling during the national anthem to protest the divisions between law enforcement and the black community.

But then, all of the nearly 50 NFL players who have publicly supported San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s stand by kneeling or raising a fist during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner are but one color: black.

NFLPA Vice President and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs, Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO Carmen Berkley and Dave Zirin talk about athletes speaking up during the AFL-CIO's panel on the role of athletes and the labor movement when it comes to racial and social justice at the AFL-CIO on October 25, 2016 in Washington D.C. The panel, moderated by Dave Zirin, featured Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO Carmen Berkley, NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs and NFLPA Vice President and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson discussed athletes roles in speaking out on social issues.

NFLPA Vice President and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs, Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO Carmen Berkley and Dave Zirin talk about athletes speaking up during the AFL-CIO’s panel on the role of athletes and the labor movement when it comes to racial and social justice at the AFL-CIO on October 25, 2016 in Washington D.C.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Some of us are apparently not the ones we are waiting for.

“White America has to want to enter into the black experience – you can go through your life and not have to think about what the experience is like for someone who is black,” Benjamin Watson said.

The NFLPA vice president and 13-year tight end, now with the Baltimore Ravens, broke down the difference: “Those who are black have to know about white culture,” Watson said. “They have to understand how to navigate different spheres. That’s just how the country is set up. That’s not right and wrong. What’s wrong is when you actively don’t want to engage. … don’t want to hear something that is not your experience.”

Watson sat next to Briggs on the dais inside the AFL-CIO building, along with Carmen Berkley, the labor union’s director of civil, human and women’s rights, and Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, who moderated the discussion on what role unions should play as an increasing number of athletes – most of them black – suddenly demonstrate for racial and social justice while waiting on many of their white brothers to “get” it.

“Race is not a black people problem,” Berkley began, “it’s an everybody-people problem.”

“It’s past time for white athletes to take some of that burden,” Zirin added.

Zirin is white. Like a smattering of other woke Caucasians covering sports (I plead the Fifth), this is also a moment for him. No longer sappy leftist, social engineers speaking in a vacuum, they’re emboldened by people who play the games that say they care about more than just getting paid.

But how much change can realistically happen if most of the people speaking out look like the oppressed people? My colleague Domonique Foxworth alluded to this in a column recently about the power and reach a Black Lives Matter speech would have if the messenger were, say, Aaron Rodgers, a socially conscious white quarterback following his heart on other societal issues.

As this new landscape of athlete-activism takes shape, so has the critique of selective social advocacy.

For instance, when LeBron James donned a hoodie with his former Miami Heat teammates in a photo that drew further national attention to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, he became an important social voice in his profession – an example to lesser-known pro athletes who had grown up on what’s been called the Jordan Doctrine: The less you say, the better chance you have of keeping your endorsements.

But James is also a hardcore fan of Cleveland sports. So when his Instagram account this month featured an Indians’ baseball cap with the crude Native American caricature of Chief Wahoo on it, people noticed.

Calling it “a struggle for which he obviously doesn’t care,” the New York Daily News’ Ebenezer Samuel observed a hard truth about today’s activism: “This is why change to all this racial injustice comes at such a glacial pace: Minorities still routinely fight for their own communities more than they actually fight against racial injustice.”

Or as a Native American activist wrote on Facebook, using a photo of Washington football players DeSean Jackson and three teammates raising their fist in support of Kaepernick, “How can you say Black Lives Matter when the name on your jersey says Red Lives Don’t?”

Berkley said that in conversations the AFL-CIO (which includes the NFLPA) has conducted with its members about race, a constant theme is that racism hurts everyone.

“For us, it’s going to take a culture shift within the labor movement … because this isn’t about white guilt,” she said. “This isn’t even about white privilege. This is about saying, ‘Communities of color make up a significant portion of the labor movement, I care about these people and it is time to figure out how we have full integration. Not integration that makes people feel comfortable, but integration that moves a progressive agenda forward.’ ”

NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs laughs while being asked question during the AFL-CIO's panel on the role of athletes and the labor movement when it comes to racial and social justice at the AFL-CIO on October 25, 2016 in Washington D.C. The panel, moderated by Dave Zirin, featured Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO Carmen Berkley, NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs and NFLPA Vice President and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson discussed athletes roles in speaking out on social issues.

NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs laughs while being asked question during the AFL-CIO’s panel on the role of athletes and the labor movement when it comes to racial and social justice at the AFL-CIO on October 25, 2016 in Washington D.C. The panel, moderated by Dave Zirin, featured Director of Civil, Human and Women’s Rights for the AFL-CIO Carmen Berkley, NFLPA Counsel Joe Briggs and NFLPA Vice President and Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson discussed athletes roles in speaking out on social issues.

Brent Lewis/The Undefeated

Len Elmore, the former NBA player and former head of the league’s retired players association, got up from his seat at the end of the discussion and wanted to know what’s next. What measures – other than kneeling during the anthem or or holding a town hall meeting – could be taken by unions to move the needle as socially conscious athletes did years ago?

While head of the NBA retired players group, Elmore, who is also an attorney, filed briefs along with the NAACP to fight two national desegregation cases. “We didn’t win, but we raised the consciousness of our membership, that we had the leverage to do this,” Elmore said. “If we really want to effect change, there are other ways to do it.”

The NFLPA is in a tough position because of its disparate workforce. While publicly praising domestic-violence awareness, it is also the union ensuring that Josh Brown gets his money after the New York Giants cut the kicker who admitted to abusing his former wife. It’s at once the union of social-justice warrior Kaepernick and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a Donald Trump supporter.

Before the save-the-world loyalists walked out of the room, Watson was asked where this is all headed, will it really matter when people look back on the 2000s as we do the ’60s. Can the players unions genuinely be at the forefront of sports and politics? How far can they transition into advocacy, especially if a significant portion of their membership – much of it white – hasn’t shown a willingness to advocate to change the black experience?

“What’s the endgame? It’s the continuation of a conversation that’s been happening since 1619,” he said. “It’s our time to play our roles in this progress. The endgame is justice for everyone. How are we going to get there? I don’t know.

“I know sometimes I want to throw my hands up. I get frustrated. I have a great conversation with a guy that starts to understand. Then I hear something from somebody else and I think, ‘It’s never going to change. What are we doing? I’m going to deal with life, my wife, deal with my kids and close myself off to everybody else.’ ”

He paused and said, “No.” That was the easy way out.

“The endgame is having the willingness to continue to put yourself out there, to continue to fight.”

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We just need more education, more practice, more unity.

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.