Arthur Blank, Falcons to have open discussion on race, protests

Arthur Blank is white, wealthy and powerful. So he can’t begin to relate to many of the issues that led Colin Kaepernick to drop to one knee during the national anthem last year, nor the hurt and anger felt by African-American athletes across the U.S. when our elected president called anybody who would protest “SOBs.”

But the Falcons’ owner understands the reason for the protests and knows the issues aren’t quickly going away. That’s why he and the team are pushing to move this “from protest to progress” and plans an open discussion with players, coaches, team officials and an outside facilitator early next week on race relations and related matters that have led to this point.

Blank acknowledges his skin tone makes it difficult to put himself in the shoes of African-Americans accustomed to forms of racism including, but not limited to, abuses by law enforcement and the justice system. But neither was Blank’s upbringing in a bubble.

He came from a middle-class background and lived in a one-bedroom apartment until he was married. His grandparents immigrated from Europe.

“I lived in a diverse community: Queens, New York, and I went to public schools my whole life,” he said. “But having said that, I’m white, I’m not African-American, so I don’t share that history organically. But in terms of my values and principles I do, and I think you know that.”

The Falcons plan to bring in Andrew Mac Intosh, a facilitator from RISE, which stands for Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.” The organization was started in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Ross, like Blank, is a white Jewish man in his late 70s. But he’s a native of Detroit, where he witnessed racism up close.

Mac Intosh is RISE's national director of leadership and education programs. RISE’s board of directors includes commissioners from every pro sports league and the top executive from organizations of significance.

The advisory board includes Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, who is one of the organization’s most active individuals and has long been moved by various social causes.

Before change can happen, there needs to be an understanding of what happened Sunday. Taking a knee during the national anthem does not solve any problems. It meant only to start a dialogue, just as when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a black-power salute on the medals stand in the 1968 Olympics.

What better platform for moving this forward than sports? Sports bring people together from all races, religions, ages, socio-economic classes, nationalities and political alliances. As Ross is quoted on the RISE website, “The sports community is uniquely positioned and empowered to break down barriers, and provides us with a vast platform in which to begin open conversations, impact youth and be an effective catalyst for social progress.”

Falcons defensive linemen Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett didn’t drop to a knee as they locked arms with teammates before last week’s game in Detroit because they hate America or the flag. They did so because they love this country and the inflammatory speech uttered from Donald Trump in Alabama hurt them, angered them.

The NFL is a league that for far too long has been driven by only thing: revenue streams. It needs to be a catalyst for change for something other than their collective wallet.

Blank wants to open a dialogue. Mac Intosh will facilitate a conversation, likely on Monday, which is the start of the Falcons' bye week. It’s hoped players will speak openly about complicated issues and offer possible solutions. They could range from meeting with people in the community to law enforcement, but nobody knows for certain yet.

“The purpose of any protest, whether you believe it or not, is to make change,” Blank said. “So we want to listen to them. What I’d like to see coming out of it is to first see what the other person is saying, as opposed to imposing your feelings on them. I can’t speak for 2,000 players in the NFL. But I doubt there’s any that really feel over the long term that being disrespectful to the national anthem or the flag is the right way to make progress. But they want to be heard, and it’s our responsibility to listen and respond as best we can.”

Blank said he is “disturbed” by the backlash against last week’s protests and believes they stem from “a lack of communication and a lack of understanding where somebody is coming from.”

“It’s not fabric they’re fighting for, it’s the values behind the flag,” he said. “That’s what makes America great.”

I asked Blank if he believed the Falcons or the NFL in general would have been so sensitive to pushing for change had Trump not attacked the league in his speech.

“I think the players' feelings are very important, but obviously that (speech) struck a chord with a lot of them,” he said. “It went to 400 (players kneeling) from maybe four. It struck a raw nerve with a lot of people, black and white. I think an equal number of white people were offended -- people, not football fans, but people in that community.”

And then: “If it developed a higher sense of urgency, that’s a good thing. But I’m not prepared to give him credit for anything.”

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About the Author

Jeff Schultz
Jeff Schultz
Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.