Truth and Consequences: Advice for the NFL From A Baptist Pastor

By Rev. John H. Vaughn

I am a sports fan, a follower of all of Boston’s sports teams: the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots. I am also an African-American Baptist minister, working for social justice grounded in love and inclusion.

This has led to some juggling in my life priorities: I was in Fenway Park for one of David Ortiz’s last games as a Red Sox, and I joined Black Lives Matter protesters at Foley Square shortly after the death of Michael Brown. I was jubilant as the Patriots staged an improbable Super Bowl comeback last year, and I have advocated the repeal of “Stand Your Ground” statutes after the death of Trayvon Martin.

So when Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee last year during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed black men, I was hopeful it would lead to a national discussion. And I felt a similar optimism when LeBron James wore T-shirts before games drawing attention to the unjust killings of Martin, Tamir Rice and others.

For so long, I yearned for black athletes and entertainers to be more vocal in their opposition to a variety of social injustices, particularly against African-American communities. They have a platform to draw attention, as well as the cachet and relationships to be catalysts for change. Instead, they have been mostly silent.

There are several reasons, including the ways in which athletes are catered to, causing worries about damaging their brand (see Michael Jordan). Bill Rhoden, the former New York Times columnist, outlines  this dynamic in his book “40 Million Dollar Slaves.”

So we should admire those who do take public stands. On sports talk radio, it seems a majority of respondents are viscerally angry with the protesters. Some players have even received death threats. But it takes courage to live up to your convictions in front of a stadium filled with people, most of whom are angered by your actions.  Now that several NFL players are continuing to engage in protests before games, I would humbly offer some advice.

Being prophetic is not easy.Speaking truth to power is the definition of being prophetic — in this case, expressing dismay that police killings of unarmed black people continues and outrage that there has been so little accountability. In the Hebrew Bible, most of the prophets were not celebrated but were often ostracized, punished, imprisoned and even killed. Those in seats of power, from a number of team owners in the NFL to the president, have deemed you to be the enemy. The same attitude greeted Curt Flood when he challenged baseball’s reserve clause in 1970. He had to sit out a full season, yet his courage paved the way for free agency, giving ballplayers more control over their careers.

I encourage players to find others aligned with their views — fellow players, owners, administrators, referees and vendors — and support one another. An early example of sports and activism came in the 1960s when black athletes such as Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and Bill Russell came out in support of Muhammad Ali when he chose to be a conscientious objector and not enter the Vietnam War draft. Russell won 11 championships in Boston, but rubbed many in the city the wrong way with his outspokenness. “Bill Russell got tagged with being anti-white and rude and everything else … but all he really wanted to do was be recognized as an individual,” said Tommy Heinsohn, a former teammate and a longtime Celtics announcer. “He had been slighted several times, and he was smart enough to recognize it.”

Kneeling is just the beginning. Think of the ways you can use your time, talent and treasure to support the struggle to eliminate police violence in black communities. Bring visibility to success stories like Prince George’s County in Maryland whose public/governmental partnership has almost eradicated such police shootings. Use your money to invest in organizations engaged in this work, and show up for Black Lives Matter marches. Find a way that works for you to increase your engagement in a meaningful way.

To NFL owners I was inspired when many of you took the field with your teams and stood arm and arm with your players after the president attacked Kaepernick and players who protest. It gave me hope. Please continue to support your players, and what they care about, with your time, talent and treasure. Match their donations and speak out against police violence against unarmed black people. Use your celebrity and influence to work inside the system to change how policing works and push for more accountability. Imagine if Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft sat with local police chiefs, even confidentially, and said, “Neither I nor my organization will tolerate this kind of violence, and we want law enforcement to be held accountable.”

NFL pre-game activities are not a neutral platform. The pageantry of the flag and the national anthem articulates and re-enforces one view of patriotism. But that often becomes conflated into seeing dissent as “unpatriotic” and somehow unsupportive of our troops. Unity as a country is to be celebrated, but it requires acknowledging that their are limits to that unity and not ignoring that we may not be as united as we want to believe.

Many black Americans and others are crying out for justice and do not feel heard or valued. Many even feel attacked for even questioning the police. My mother used to tell me growing up that there are positive and negative consequences to every decision you make. And once you make a decision, you have to be willing to live with the consequences — good and bad.

And another truth? Not taking a stand  is making a decision.

Rev. John Vaughn is Executive Vice President at Auburn Seminary and a Baptist Minister. 

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