- Programming Note: A new episode of "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" featuring special guest Steve Wyche airs Friday night after Giants Postgame Live on NBC Sports Bay Area and after A's Postgame Live on NBC Sports California.
There they were Thursday night, the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, longtime intrastate rivals, standing alongside each other, locked in an exhibition of unity that projected the NFL’s message of solidarity for a more humane America.
There’s a modicum of progress in that this display of civility initiating Week 2 of the NFL season was not met with dissent. The 6,000 or so fans scattered about FirstEnergy Stadium ensured the Cleveland experience was more cordial than the Kansas City experience a week earlier.
What’s discouraging is that there is no reason to believe the politeness will be any more effective than any of the various on-field demonstrations of Week 1.
The goal of using sports as a vehicle to promote equality is noble. It’s elusive, though, because there can be no traction without full-throated support from the ownership level.
There is a way, according to longtime NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche, a panelist this week on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which will follow Giants and A’s postgame shows Friday night on NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports Northwest.
“Here is what a lot of players have said, because they understand that everyone is going to think like them,” Wyche said. “They understand that millionaires and billionaires often got that way by using political influence, using connections, whether they've got to pay or donate to whomever on whichever side of the political spectrum.
“Remember, we had nine owners donate more than $9 million to President Trump's initial campaign or to his inauguration. You have Stephen Ross of the Miami Dolphins having these massive $100,000, $200,000 per-plate fundraisers for Donald Trump.
“Players understand that you don't pay that kind of money without having access.”
Trump is at the center of debate because of his strong opposition to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to peacefully protest inequality and police brutality during the national anthem. During a 2017 speech in Alabama, Trump urged team owners to say, ‘Get that son of a b---h off the field. He is fired. He’s fired.’”
Trump has yet to move off that stance, and there’s no indication he has been confronted by NFL owners.
The Players Coalition, formed by a group of NFL players unaffiliated with Kaepernick that assembled to address social justice, is trying to nudge team owners to press the issue with the man many of them support.
“They are saying even if you do not agree with us politically, use that access,” Wyche said. “Instead of paying that money and helping him with his political career, for him to call players sons of b----s, back off that rhetoric, Mr. President, and use your voice to maybe work with them. Or understand some of the causes they're doing to try to help. It can ease some of the tensions.”
Wyche noted that Trump has moved positively to address prison reform, most notably two years ago when he signed the First Step Act, which is designed to, among other things, reduce the over-incarceration of people of color and also eradicate disparage sentencing based on race.
That bill came with bipartisan support, and Trump –- who openly has advocated for police officers to get “rough” with suspects -– pushed it into law.
“If you’re the ‘law and order’ president, you may not want to hear something about justice reform,” Wyche said. "But, at the same time, you're talking about all the prison reform, the positive prison Reform steps he's done -and Trump has, give him credit for that -– and he's done a lot of things with Prison Reform.
“Use that message. And, owners, use that influence to work with these players for their causes for justice and prison reform. That way, you know there's a similar objective there. Use that influence to work positively, instead of using it as a wedge, which we know the president does over and over again –- and probably will before we get to November 3rd.”
Even though they have heard the names surfacing in the cataclysm that is 2020, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and probably Jacob Blake to name three -– NFL owners are largely unafflicted by these symptoms of America’s legislated racism.
There was, last week, the utterly shameless use of a four-year-old video featuring a kneeling Kaepernick, who was blackballed a few months later and remains unsigned and without sincere support at the highest levels of the league.
Former 49ers safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s closest comrade, is coming off a tremendous season yet remains unsigned –- and defensive coordinators are starved for playmaking safeties.
Not all owners are against social justice. Jed York of the 49ers, Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons and Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles are among those who have used various means to show support.
Maybe most of the people who direct the actions of our most powerful sports league feel hiring a Black coach or drafting a Black quarterback –- all while financially supporting a president that has retweeted video of a supporter promoting “White Power” –- is a sufficient contribution toward a solution.
Memo to owners: It is not