This spring, George Floyd’s death galvanized not just thousands of people across the country who took to the streets and burned up Congressional phone lines to protest systemic racism and violence, but also NFL players. Across the league, we saw players calling for change, donating or creating funds for local and national organizations focused on advancing Black causes, and putting pressure on the league and its well-connected, wealthy owners to back those causes themselves. Players who had taken knees on sidelines or made statements in the past concluded it was time for more direct action, and in other leagues that resulted in the cancellation of games.
For the NFL, my fear was that it would all just prove to be talk, given that the league has been pretty feckless when it comes to affecting change in the league, much less larger society. No one should forget that this is the league that first ignored, then was forced to address domestic violence, and the net change to the league was an inconsistently-applied change to suspensions that came with zero visible impact on prevention either within the league or without.
Seeing a lot of talk of unity and “End Racism” in small letters at the very back of end zones certainly made me think that would be the case again, and the league’s commitment to actual change has seemed shaky at best thus far. Their strongest initiative has been encouraging NFL teams to use their stadiums as polling places.
That lack of tangible action has not been the case for the Falcons, as this excellent writeup in the New York Times makes clear. Read it.
Specifically, players have elected to push for more civic engagement and involvement in social justice initiatives in their communities, with a strong push to encourage more young people to vote. Ricardo Allen, a universally-loved team leader who has been on the team’s social justice committee since 2017, explained why that has become a focus for players and the team more generally.
“The question that kept popping up was, what was the main thing that everyone is talking about and complaining about, and most of the answers come back to having the right people in office to help,” Allen said. “Voting was the most impactful thing we could support.”
Falcons players participated in marches and protests throughout the spring and summer and continue to speak openly about the need for concrete changes to the way the United States treats Black people, which is itself a strong use of their platform. But it’s one thing to criticize the levers of power and another to put people who agree with you in a position to wield them, something Allen and his teammates have recognized. Change doesn’t come just through the ballot box—no one should think an election alone can solve a country’s ills—but it’s one of the most viable ways to start to get the ball rolling on the kind of transformation that will matter and will persist.
The players would do this on their own, but it’s worth noting that Arthur Blank is one of few owners publicly encouraging them to get involved, and has himself funneled millions of dollars into causes around Atlanta via the Arthur Blank foundation.
“We put the players in an environment where they have the best opportunities,” Blank said in an interview last month. “This gives them a bigger sense of purpose coming to work.”
The work ahead is significant and daunting, because we live in a country that is historically resistant to sweeping, consequential change, as the heavy resistance to having honest conversations about racial inequality and systemic violence has shown. It’s yet another reminder that this team is filled with genuinely good people, which matters a great deal. For those who have sharply criticized sideline kneeling as inconsequential, it must feel good to know the Falcons are committed to doing much more with their time and influence.