Falcons applaud Goodell’s switch on social justice issues; others are skeptical

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank stands with his players during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Credit: Rick Osentoski

Credit: Rick Osentoski

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank stands with his players during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Falcons president Rich McKay and player representative Josh Harris applauded NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's admission that the league was wrong to require players to stand during the national anthem after protests against police brutality and social injustice several years ago. Goodell issued a video statement on Friday condemning racism and changing the league's stance on such protests.

Goodell's words were preceded by a video from several prominent NFL players on Thursday night. The video prompted a league meeting.

“The players’ video was very impactful,” McKay told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was well done. It made a clear statement. Then I thought the league’s response was as equally impactful. It admitted some things that as a league that we didn’t get right and made some commitments going forward with real action. We are a big brand. The National Football League is a big brand. We can help be part of the solution, working on these issues. It was really good to see in my mind that the league answered the call of the players from a couple of nights earlier and came back with what I thought was a pretty strong response.”

In the wake of the protests started by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the 2016 exhibition season, the Falcons formed a social justice committee. The team elected to lock arms in a show of unity during the 2017 season.

When asked what the league has learned since Kaepernick started the protest, McKay responded, “Looking at it personally, all of us have to realize that you can’t get distracted by the discussion about the flag and get off the issues that Kaepernick was trying to bring awareness to, which was racial inequality and social justice. ... This is a moment in time where you can’t get distracted by side issues and that’s what happened from my perspective in the Kaepernick situation.”

Harris, a long snapper, is also on the social justice committee.

“The NFL provides every one of us an opportunity to speak our minds and voice concerns on issues that have plagued this country for hundreds of years and ones that are ever evolving such as the coronavirus ordeal that we’ve been going through for months,” Harris told the AJC on Saturday. “That’s one of the many reasons why I’m thankful for the organization that we have here in Atlanta and the platform that all of us have through the game of football to be able to show various ways and actually forming a committee to be able to go out to our community and make a difference.”

Harris, in the wake of the Goodell video, believes the committee’s work will expand.

“I am thankful to be a part of a group of guys that I can learn a lot from and be able to figure out ideals and how we can best serve our communities here in Atlanta and in our hometowns wherever they are across this country,” Harris said. “That makes me really proud and I can’t want to see the work that we can put together and implement moving forward.”

Falcons long snapper Josh Harris.

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Falcons coach Dan Quinn added Harris to the committee a few weeks ago.

“There were a few guys that were put together to formulate some actions and just be a smaller group to be able to talk and listen before we kind of threw it over to the whole team,” Harris said. “It was really powerful to be able to hear testimonies and stories and ideas from people from all walks of life.”

The Falcons’ locker room is diverse.

“If you look at our locker room, or any locker room from across the country, it’s a beautiful thing because it’s people coming from all different places, all different beliefs, all different backgrounds, into the same room to put all of those differences aside to work toward a common goal,” Harris said. “I hope we can continue to treat each other like that outside of the building and outside of the game of football. Hopefully, we can all make some necessary changes.”

Former Falcons assistant coach Terry Robiskie, who is currently with the Jaguars, was with a large group from the organization -- including about 30 players -- in a recent march from the team’s stadium to the police precinct to protest police brutality.

“You may not see the results from this, but your grandkids will, your kids will,” Robiskie said after the march.

Goodell’s comments were met with skepticism by the veteran coach, who’s been coaching in the NFL since 1982 and played in the league from 1977-81.

“Good Roger, you guys came out and admitted that you guys made a mistake, I think somewhere in there somebody should ask them what does that do for Colin Kaepernick because you cost him his career,” Robiskie told the AJC. “Now, you want to come back and admit we made a mistake. You admit we should have followed him.

“OK, good, you admitted that, but you cost that man his career, his livelihood, his ability to make a living because he did it.”

The NFL must do more than admit that that it was wrong, Robiske said.

“To me that’s like sending a guy to prison for 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit,” Robiskie said. “Most cities and most states pay for that. Are you guys willing to pay for that? You’ve admitted that you’ve made a mistake. ... Are you willing to pay for that. What are you going to do to fix the situation.”

Robiskie believes the NFL needs to apologize to Kaepernick and arrange a job with a team or the league office.  Kaepernick has not played in the NFL after the 2016 season.

There’s also the matter of owners who threatened and disparaged players during the protests.

“What do you say to a guy like (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones, who told his players if they take a knee they were gone, they’d be fired,” Robiskie said. “Is Jerry Jones going to apologize for threatening his guys?

“God bless him and let him rest in peace, but is somebody going to make a statement and say (former Houston Texans owner) Bob McNair was wrong to say that the fact that guys were protesting we were letting the prisoners run the prison.”

In the wake of nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis two weeks ago,and others, the issues of race and police brutality came back into forefront around the NFL, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank issued a statement that dealt with the matter a week ago. However, his statement did not mention police brutality or Floyd's name. Blank was unavailable for comment Saturday.

“A number of events over the last couple of weeks have reminded us again that the long, worthy quest for equal justice, civility and unity in America is far from over,” Blank said in the statement. “People are scared and in pain. Their frustration is real, and it must be acknowledged and addressed.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who made a $500,000 donation to start a fund to advance the lives of the black community in Atlanta on Friday, also spoke about the racial climate in the nation.

“My heart goes out to all of those who loved George Floyd, and all those who have been impacted by similar tragedies,” Ryan wrote on social media. “I know that I cannot fully understand the depth and complexity of these issues because of the color of my skin, which is a sad testament to all of the work we have left to do.”

Falcons center Alex Mack discussed the death of Floyd before the protests and some subsequent riots took place.

“I know it’s a difficult time in the nation,” Mack said. “I know it is something that as a nation we’ve got heal.

“Police officers have a really tough job. They are constantly on the street putting their lives on the line for the health and safety for everybody. For the mistrust to be there is difficult.

“On the same hand, people can’t be dying on routine stops and stuff.”

Falcons fullback Keith Smith supported the Black Lives Matter movement and called for justice the death of Floyd. 

“I do believe this is something that the judicial system itself has created due to lack of justice and willingness to hear the pain and cries of a frustrated group of people who just want to be heard,” Smith wrote on a social media post. “What I’m learning and trying to understand myself is that brushing things under the rug doesn’t work. It only creates buried, festering resentment and anger.”

Falcons offensive tackle Kaleb McGary initially was perplexed by the riots and chastised the protesters before deleting a tweet.

He said the protesters were “no better than the cops they claim to hate.” Several Falcons fans harshly criticized McGary and the tweet was deleted.

He changed his tone in a later tweet.

“I apologize for my previous misguided choice of words and the hurt they have caused,” McGary wrote.

Over the past week, Saints quarterback Drew Brees’  comments about players kneeling for the anthem touched off the latest round of discussion that culminated with Goodell’s video.

Brees issued two apologies and then responded to President Donald Trump, who said he should not have apologized, on the issue of the players' right to protest.

Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, a native of New Orleans, said Brees' initial apology rang hollow.

Brees told Yahoo Finance that he would never support NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Then he back-tracked the next day with an apology.

“He hasn’t walked in our shoes,” Jones said. “But you would think he would have empathy from being in the locker room. But he still leaves and doesn’t have the same problems. It’s just going to start with people’s willingness to listen and learn about our position and (be) willing to change it, taking action.”

Brees has come full circle over the course of five days.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressed the Falcons on Monday.  Quinn asked her to give the team one or two things they could do to help the city heal after the protests.

“We’ve got to be able to speak hope to people right now,” Bottoms said. “We’ve got to give people a belief that there is something better on the other side of all of this while recognizing their anger.”

Jones has been watching the protests with great interest.

“I feel like sports always comes in at the right time,” Jones said. “You still can’t forget what the whole thing is about. Even though we have sports to bring us together, we still can’t forget. We still have to take action toward what the final goal is, and that’s human rights for everybody.”

The admission by the NFL may be important in moving forward as it holds a prominent place in the nation’s landscape.

“The NFL sets a model for this country,” super agent Leigh Steinberg said. “We’ve never had a sport this dominant before or had a sport that dominates television ratings.”

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