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ben volin | on football

Football coaches can no longer brush off politics and social issues as distractions

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged that he had a "blind spot" and vowed to change.
Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged that he had a "blind spot" and vowed to change.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

Politics has always been discouraged inside NFL locker rooms, widely seen as a distraction that serves only to rip a team apart.

It was only four years ago that Bill Belichick, when asked about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during a preseason game, quickly brushed aside the subject: “We’re not here to talk about political commentary or ideology and all of that.”

And it was only three years ago that Belichick shot down a question about 18 of his players kneeling before a September 2017 game against the Texans as part of a leaguewide player protest over comments by President Trump.

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“Yeah, I’m just going to talk about the game,” Belichick said. “I’ll deal with that later.”

But that answer doesn’t fly in 2020. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others in recent weeks have touched a nerve across the country about police brutality and social injustice. Kaepernick’s message has never been more clear, and has never generated more support. It’s inhumane and callous to ignore the greater issues currently affecting our country and Black communities. And it certainly is no longer acceptable to conflate kneeling for the national anthem with disrespect to the flag or the US military. Just ask Drew Brees.

For three years, NFL players such as the Patriots’ Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Matthew Slater, and Duron Harmon have used their platforms not just to advance Kaepernick’s cause, but to achieve additional, impactful changes: adding education funding to low-income Massachusetts communities; helping restore voting rights to felons in Florida; raising money for sickle cell research; and helping ex-gang members get into college.

Devin McCourty has never been one to just "stick to sports."
Devin McCourty has never been one to just "stick to sports."Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The days of “sticking to sports” are over.

It’s OK to use the platform provided by the NFL to shine a light on political and social issues.

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It’s OK to acknowledge that the country has serious issues that affect people of all shapes and sizes, including NFL players.

Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk said she will support players who kneel during the anthem. Bill O’Brien said he’s going to kneel with his players this fall. Roger Goodell said he would “encourage” a team to sign Kaepernick.

Belichick probably won’t be taking a knee this fall, but he at least seems willing to do more with his platform.

“Conversations across our country and within our team will help lead to paving the way to a better future,” Belichick said to Devin McCourty last week in an event for the nonprofit organization Boston Uncornered. “Following your lead, and the example of other incredible men on our team, I look forward to increasing my role in this process. Healthy discussion leads to actions, and actions that you have brought to the forefront have resulted in progress.”

And it’s not enough for a white player to show support for Black Lives Matter on Instagram, or put his arm around a teammate during the anthem. There’s a lot of anger that Kaepernick is still out of a job despite the wide acceptance of his message and his choice of peaceful protest. And that it took people this long to actually hear what he was saying.

Miami head coach Brian Flores has spoken out on social issues many times.
Miami head coach Brian Flores has spoken out on social issues many times.Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Dolphins coach Brian Flores, one of three Black head coaches in the NFL, didn’t release a statement denouncing racism, as most coaches and teams have done. His statement voiced anger and frustration, and let the world know that he ended friendships over Kaepernick’s treatment.

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“I vividly remember the Colin Kaepernick conversations. ‘Don’t ever disrespect the flag’ was the phrase that I heard over and over again,” Flores wrote. “This idea that players were kneeling in support of social justice was something some people couldn’t wrap their head around. The outrage that I saw in the media and the anger I felt in some of my own private conversations caused me to sever a few longstanding friendships.”

Flores was working for the Patriots in 2017. It’s quite possible those “don’t ever disrespect the flag” conversations happened inside Gillette Stadium, and that those “longstanding friendships” he severed were with people he worked alongside in Foxborough every day.

Many people who broadcast their opinions on kneeling or on the hiring of minorities don’t seem to have an opinion on the recent murders of these young black men and women,” Flores added. “I think many of them QUIETLY say that watching George Floyd plead for help is one of the more horrible things they have seen, but it’s said amongst themselves where no one can hear. Broadcasting THAT opinion clearly is not important enough.”

It is no longer acceptable for football coaches to try to appease both sides of the kneeling debate, or to move the conversation away from politics as quickly as possible. And it is no longer acceptable for coaches to silence their players and force them to fall in line.

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Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa football coach since 1999, learned that lesson. Ferentz’s longtime strength coach, Chris Doyle, was let go Monday for a long history of alleged racist remarks, and Ferentz admitted to having a “blind spot” and vowed to change. Ferentz also lifted his program’s Twitter ban, calling it a “dumb rule” to forbid his players from using the social media platform.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney spoke Saturday during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney spoke Saturday during a protest over the death of George Floyd.John Bazemore/Associated Press

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney learned it, too. Swinney took so much criticism from ex-players about the racist undertones of his program that he joined his team at an on-campus “March for Change" last weekend.

“I'm embarrassed to say that there’s things on this campus I didn’t really understand,” he said.

And Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy learned that today’s athletes don’t respect the old power structure. Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard said Monday that he wouldn’t participate with the team after Gundy was seen wearing an “OAN” shirt, referring to One America News, a far-right media outlet that has been known to mock the Black Lives Matter movement. After the school president and athletic director tweeted their dismay with Gundy’s shirt, the coach met with Hubbard and vowed to make changes to his program.

Football players have found their voices in 2020. Bringing social issues to light is no longer a distraction. Coaches had better get on board.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.