“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)
I am not a writer, nor am I a poet. I am not a social activist or a politician. I am simply an American; an American who has seen far too much tragedy to continue to remain silent. I’m not sure of the manner in which athletes should get involved, but there is a role to play. America is one of the largest and most diverse nations in the world and with that comes a unique set of challenges. Challenges that can be overcome, but it will take work and unity. Most of the work will simply be communication.
Perspective is everything. It’s what allows people to view the same event, but interpret the engagement two completely different ways. This phenomenon insures that no two people will ever see any situation the same way. They are simply the sum of their life’s experiences with no two being identical. My experiences that led me to the NFL were far different than some of my professional teammates.
I grew up in Lancaster, Ohio. Both of my parents and their families are from there. It’s a town that for the past 50 years has watched its identity change with the United States economy. Gone is much of the manufacturing, leaving mostly service jobs and a distant bedroom community to Columbus. My high school graduating class was overwhelming white. There wasn’t much racial diversity at all. Other than a couple of AAU Summer league times I had limited experiences with black men. If it wasn’t for my father’s experience while playing in the NFL, I would have been completely naïve to race when I arrived at Ohio State.
Walking into the Ohio State locker room was somewhat of a culture shock; the team was over half black. Though after a few weeks, it was business as usual and skin colors slowly faded away. It allowed me to develop relationships with teammates who grew up far differently than I could have ever imagined. Growing up in Lancaster nearly everyone had a healthy respect for police and other law enforcement officials. The respect was cultivated at a young age from the belief that officers were always there to help. Sure there were times as adolescences when we tested the bounds of authority, but I was always taught to greet the police with a smile and a handshake. It was a far cry from how many of my teammates were raised.
After spending a considerable amount of time around some of my teammates from regions far different than my hometown, I began to see a much different view of authority. It seemed to stem from unfortunate experiences of their youth. Their view of law enforcement was far different than mine. Many of them had watched the incarceration of their friends and even had their own run-ins with the law. Justified or not, negative interactions with police will lead to a negative opinion of law enforcement. My teammates’ reality had been much different than I experienced. They had experiences that I had never dreamed were possible. I had watched events like that happen in movies, but never in my day to day life. It was an eye opening experience.
Over the course of four years I became close friends with many of my black teammates. They trusted me. I trusted them. It didn’t happen overnight. The trust evolved from spending countless hours in incredibly adverse conditions. You can find out a lot about a man when he is near his physical and mental breaking point. Eventually we evolved to the point where we were able to have a healthy discourse about race and even joke with one another about it.
As different as Ohio State was from high school, the NFL elevated the stakes even further. New relationships had to be forged with teammates who didn’t know me. There was just one small difference my first year in Dallas. Instead of a team that was close to racially balanced, I was one of two white players on the entire defense. Two players out of 25, it is a situation that very few white Americans will every find themselves in; a workplace where they are the overwhelming minority. It helps to build perspective. The ironic part is that after a week, I seemingly forgot about the racial makeup of the room. This isn’t to say that we moved past race, but once a common goal was established for our unit race seemingly ceased to exist. It wasn’t by some miraculous design, but rather learning about the people underneath the skin. Trust was built and relationships were developed. It smashed barriers and built a cohesive unit.
My final season with New England was when race became the running joke amongst many of the players on the defensive side of the ball. While many people believe sensitive topics should always be treated in a serious manner, I believe once you can find humor in a serious issue, an honest dialog can be opened and that’s how solutions are found. Most of the veteran players would joke about the racial stereotypes that existed in NFL scouting reports. Many white players would be defined as, “a coach on the field,” “limited athletically, but fundamentally sound,” and “disciplined and hardworking.” The contrary would be said about black players, “undisciplined, but athletic,” “roaming playmaker with tendency to freelance,” and my favorite “may have issues learning the scheme, but will make plays.” While historically there may be some basis for stereotypes, these were like a broken record and they became funny because of how false they were. These discussions dominated our limited break time between meetings, but provided a much-needed reprieve from the daily NFL grind. Meanwhile inherently everyone knew that statements could be made without fear of racial backlash. It only happened because of the deep-rooted trust between every person.
Love trumps hate and trust obliterates fear. These facts are true and it’s why I decided to write this piece after reading an article written by Carmelo Anthony advocating peaceful change and the athlete’s role in enacting such change. Athletes are given a platform to help bridge the gaps in society. Sports are one of the few avenues where impoverished kids of any race can rise to the summit of fame and fortune. It was time to share my experiences. Experiences that rarely happen outside of sports or the military, where race is shed and everyone works together toward a defined goal. This is the dream that is America. I believe that is still exists, but it can only happen in the presence of trust. Trust is build through familiarity and intelligent discord. I am advocating for Americans of all races to reach out to one another. Try to understand the perspective of someone who may not look exactly like you. Go thank a law enforcement officer. There might be a few bad apples, but the overwhelming majority pursue that career because they want to protect their community. I’m not a genius, but once you know someone it’s much easier to like them.
So get to know the police, listen to them. They have a difficult job and would love to have your support and compliance. I know it may not always be the easiest solution for some Americans given their difference in perspective, but reaching out is our only option as a nation. Familiarity can eliminate the fear that exists between us. It can happen and will happen, but only if we, as a nation, make it happen.