The Daily Briefing Friday, June 30, 2017
AROUND THE NFL
The NFL announced its 2017 roster of officials and the highlights include:
– All 17 referees return. This is the third straight season for these 17 and quite a few of them are getting up there in age.
Ed Hochuli will be 67 before the season ends. Pete Morelli and Tony Corrente both turn 66 this fall. Walt Anderson is 65. Walt Coleman III keeps his age a closely guarded secret, he’s in his 29th year, but we think he is 65. Jeff Triplette also doesn’t shout out his age, but he’s Wake Forest Class of ‘73, so 64-65 would seem to be his number. Jerome Boger is 62. That makes seven who would seem to be past the third base mark in their distinguished careers.
– The “head linesman” is no more. They are going to be called “down judge.” Here is the reasoning, some of which involves political correctness:
“In addition, the position formerly known as “head linesman” will be called “down judge” beginning this season to more accurately depict the primary responsibility of the role — ensuring the correct down and distance — as well as to eliminate the gender-based classification of the position.”
– Sarah Thomas remains the only female on-field official, but Terri Valenti has been added as the first female replay official. Thomas, now with Ron Torbert’s crew, is an, ahem, down judge.
– There are eight new on-field officials. Here they are with the college conference from which they were hired: Line judge BRIAN BOLINGER (Big Ten), line judge MIKE CARR (Big Ten), side judge RYAN DICKSON (Pac-12), down judge DAVID OLIVER (SEC), field judge MEARL ROBINSON (Pac-12), field judge BRAD ROGERS (SEC), line judge DANNY SHORT (ACC), and umpire STEVE WOODS (Big Ten) will make their NFL officiating debuts this season.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com with some legal advice:
When in trouble with the law, anything you say can and will be used against you. Including, for an example, an admission of inebriation.
“I know I’m drunk,” Packers defensive lineman Letroy Guion told police in Hawaii on June 21, according to police records obtained by the Associated Press.
His blood-alcohol concentration was measured at 0.086 percent, 0.006 percent above the legal limit. The measurement came roughly an hour after his arrest, which suggests it was higher at the time he was stopped.
“I’ve been drinking Hennessy all night,” Guion told police. “I don’t drink any of that weak stuff, only the hard stuff.”
Guion has been suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season for a PED violation. He was suspended for the first three games of the 2015 season for a violation of the substance-abuse policy. He’s facing a minimum suspension of two games for the latest incident.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com checks in on the case against QB ELI MANNING:
As the Giants and quarterback Eli Manning continue to downplay a lawsuit alleging fraudulent game-used memorabilia sales, evidence of potential smoking guns continues to emerge.
Beyond a walks-talks-quacks-like-a-duck email message that the Giants and Manning have yet to rebut with a corresponding degree of clarity, a new article from Will Hobson of the Washington Post leads with a hand-in-cookie-jar example of a game-used item that necessarily wasn’t used in the game the team and Manning claim it was used in.
Eric Inselberg, the man who is suing the Giants over the alleged fraud, claims that a 2004 game-used Eli Manning helmet with a letter of authenticity from the company that has a contract to sell Manning’s game-worn items is missing one key feature that all Giants helmets had in 2004: A sticker in the rear bearing the number 79 and the initials “R.B.,” in honor of the late Roosevelt Brown.
The Giants and Manning issued to Hobson a general denial through a spokesperson for the law firm defending the case: “We dispute all the accusations related to the team and its employees.”
General denials are easy to issue. At some point, the Giants and Manning will have to provide a clear and specific response to the claim that Manning’s 2004 game-used helmet wasn’t game-used in 2004 (or ever) because it lacks the Roosevelt Brown sticker.
For now, the parts of the federal government trying to bend the Redskins to their will have put their schemes in abeyance. The AP:
The Justice Department is giving up the legal fight over the name of the Washington Redskins.
In a letter to a federal appeals court, the department said last week’s Supreme Court decision in Matal v. Tam in favor of an Asian-American band calling itself the Slants means the NFL team will prevail in a legal battle to cancel the team’s trademarks because the name is disparaging to Native Americans.
“Consistent with Tam, the Court should reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of Pro-Football,” Mark Freeman, an attorney for the Justice Department’s civil division, wrote to the Richmond, Virginia-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Redskins case had been on hold in the federal appeals court while the Slants decision was rendered. The Supreme Court found that Simon Tam could trademark the Slants as the name of his Asian-American rock band because it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to discriminate against it, citing the First Amendment’s free-speech protection. The justices were unanimous in saying the 71-year-old trademark law barring disparaging terms infringes free-speech rights.
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Seth Walder of ESPN.com looks at whether KIRK COUSINS is really worth a massive contract.
The Washington Redskins may not know how good they have it.
As the team attempts to lock up quarterback Kirk Cousins to a long-term deal, the rhetoric emanating from the NFC East franchise suggests a belief that their signal-caller is merely an above-average passer. The numbers say that’s selling him short.
“Kirk has proven he’s in the top 15 quarterbacks,” Doug Williams, now the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel, said recently. The comment wasn’t meant as a slight (and may have been a negotiating tactic), as Williams has indicated that he certainly wants to lock Cousins up to a new deal.
Former general manager Scot McCloughan indicated in May that he felt Cousins had reached his ceiling and that the quarterback needed to be surrounded by other talent. Though McCloughan is now out of the picture, his sentiment appears to be a popular perception of Cousins — a solid but unremarkable quarterback. The advanced metrics paint a different picture, one of an upper-tier passer who probably deserves the higher compensation he seeks.
Despite a two-interception performance in a Week 17 loss to the New York Giants that cost the Redskins a playoff berth — more evidence for Cousins’ detractors that he’s prone to the late pick — he finished the 2016 season with a Total QBR of 71.7, sixth best in the league. It was not a fluke: He finished in the exact same position the year before. Over the course of 2015 and 2016 combined, QBR ranked him fourth, behind only Dak Prescott (in a one-year sample), Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. To repeat: A two-year sample and Cousins was safely in the company of Brady, Ryan and arguably the best rookie quarterback season in history. People get paid for less.
Though there are some instances when analytics reveal hidden talents, the reality is that much of Cousins’ abilities have been viewable in plain sight: He was the leader of the offense that recorded the second-most passing yards in 2016 while throwing for the third-most yards per attempt (8.1) among quarterbacks.
Total QBR is not the only advanced metric indicating that Cousins is better than the level Williams referenced. In Football Outsiders’ DVOA, Cousins ranked sixth and fifth, respectively, among quarterbacks in 2015 and 2016. He finished eighth and fourth, respectively, in those two years in Pro Football Reference’s adjusted net yards per attempt as well.
Certainly, there were a couple of specific areas in which Cousins excelled, as would likely be the case for any quarterback to rank so highly in QBR. Most notably, the Redskins quarterback leaned more heavily on, and had more success with, the deep ball in 2016. Though he finished fourth in raw QBR (which does not adjust for quality of opponent) on passes that traveled 21 or more yards in the air in 2016, he did so on the second-most attempts (69) and therefore contributed more expected points (24.55) on those types of passes than any other quarterback in the league. Ben Roethlisberger ranked second in the category, finishing with 20.57 expected points added on those throws.
While QBR does try to isolate the quarterback’s impact on each play, it is worth noting that part of the reason Cousins had the opportunity to throw that many passes downfield is because he had DeSean Jackson on his team. Jackson had the second-most targets (30) and receptions (14) on passes that traveled 21-plus yards in the air last year and ranked third in air yards per target. Cousins will not have the benefit of throwing to Jackson again this season, as the receiver bolted in free agency for Tampa Bay, though Terrelle Pryor Sr. — 10th in air yards per target last year with far inferior quarterbacks throwing to him — was signed in his stead.
Additionally, Cousins was at his best, relative to other quarterbacks, when not under pressure, leading the league in 2015 and finishing fourth in 2016 in raw QBR when not under duress. Of course, the flip side of Cousins’ success when not under pressure is that he was particularly poor with it. He ranked 30th and 21st in raw QBR when under pressure in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and 17th and 16th when facing five or more pass-rushers in the same time period. Interestingly, opponents did not overly capitalize on this relative weakness, as Cousins was blitzed on only 24.6 percent of dropbacks (16th most) in 2016.
Nonetheless, if the Redskins are hoping to pay Cousins at the rate of a top-15 quarterback, they are probably being optimistic given the numbers the former fourth-round quarterback has put up over the past two seasons.
In March, ESPN reported what is still the latest known offer from the team to the quarterback — a $20 million per year deal that spanned five years with “low” guarantees. (The MMQB later added that the offer was actually an extension on top of the 2017 franchise tag). Cousins’ camp sought a deal starting at his 2017 franchise tag salary of close to $24 million.
A contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $20 million would slot him below 13 quarterbacks in the NFL, per OverTheCap.com. Even if Cousins were only the 14th-best passer in the league, that AAV would be well below market value for him given that all 12 of the 13 quarterbacks on that list — Derek Carr excluded — signed their deals in earlier years, when the salary cap was lower.
It’s tempting to compare Cousins’ situation to Carr’s given that the Raiders quarterback recently signed a five-year extension that ESPN reported included $125 million in new money. But frankly, Cousins holds much more leverage than Carr had given that he’s already been hit with the franchise tag twice. The Redskins quarterback could look to parlay that leverage into more than the $40 million fully guaranteed that Carr received at signing.
On top of that, Cousins has played at a level far superior to Carr over the past two seasons. While Cousins ranked fourth in Total QBR over 2015-2016 combined, Carr finished 26th in that same span. Even looking at only 2016, Carr ranked 16th, lagging well behind Cousins at No. 6.
Granted, QBR reflects only how well Cousins did play, rather than how he will play, which is probably what the Redskins care about when making a contract offer. But given that he is just 28 years old and finished sixth in the metric two years in a row, there is little reason to think his performance going forward shouldn’t be near that mark.
In the end, the offer from the Redskins may not matter, as ESPN recently reported that there is no number from the Redskins that would make Cousins happy. If Cousins ultimately ends up leaving Washington at the end of this saga, the Redskins will be letting a very good quarterback walk out the door.
Here is more on RUSSELL WILSON’s diet – no dairy, nine meals a day (although are two tablespoons of stuff a “meal”?:
Wilson’s current meal plan asks him to eat a whopping nine times a day while cutting out all aspects of dairy and gluten. Per Kapadia, here’s a typical day of meals for Seattle’s QB1:
» Pre-breakfast: Tablespoon of almond butter and a tablespoon of jam
» Breakfast: Two cups of cooked oatmeal, six whole eggs, fruit, chicken breast
» Snack: Fruit and 12 almonds
» Lunch: Eight ounces of protein with a yam or a cup of rice or a potato and a vegetable
» Second lunch: Eight ounces of protein with a yam or a cup of rice or a potato and a vegetable
» Snack: Fruit and 12 almonds
» Snack: Fruit, 12 almonds and whey protein
» Dinner: Fish or steak and vegetables or salad
» Snack: Fruit and a tablespoon of molasses or shredded wheat, applesauce, almond butter and jam
According to Goglia, Wilson’s favorable results have just as much to do with what he’s not eating.
“One of the important things with Russell and the elite athletes is that none of the foods he consumes are inflammatory foods, which means no yeast, no mold, no dairy, no gluten,” Goglia said. “Dairy’s like eating moderately hard phlegm. It adversely affects oxygen. No dairy, no breads — muffins, bagels — nothing that is yeast, mold and gluten-bound. So starches are always one-ingredient guys like potatoes or rice or yams or oatmeal. If it’s got more than one ingredient in it, he couldn’t eat it.”
Said Wilson: “I love cheese — hence Wisconsin [where we went to school]. I love cheese, so that’s always something that you’ve got to be careful of.”
More money invested in the offensive line. Max Meyer at NFL.com:
One week after extending their franchise quarterback, the Oakland Raiders are opting to do the same thing with one of their top offensive lineman.
The team has agreed on a five-year contract extension through 2022 with guard Gabe Jackson worth $56 million, a source informed told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport on Thursday.
To put that whopping figure into perspective, the $11.2 million annual salary is the third-highest among all guards, trailing only Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler and teammate Kelechi Osemele, per OverTheCap.com.
Jackson was taken with the No. 81 pick of the 2014 NFL Draft following the Khalil Mack and Derek Carr selections (kudos to general manager Reggie McKenzie for absolutely nailing those three rounds).
The 25-year-old lineman started 28 games over his first two seasons at left guard. He switched to right guard after Osemele signed with the Silver and Black last offseason, and didn’t skip a beat. Jackson didn’t allow a single sack in the 2016 campaign, and was named as a Pro Bowl alternate.
The Raiders now have Jackson, Osemele and center Rodney Hudson all locked up through the 2019 season. Considering the trio was part of an offensive line that allowed the fewest sacks and quarterback hits in the league last season, it’s a smart move by the Raiders to invest so heavily in this unit.
Frank Schwab of Shutdown Corner believes the Texans lack only one piece, but it is the most critical one.
If you ever look at a desperate move a team makes at quarterback and wonder how an otherwise smart organization loses its mind over one position, just remember the Houston Texans.
The Texans have almost everything in place. They have a defense that led the NFL in yards allowed, and that was without the great J.J. Watt for most of the season. DeAndre Hopkins is a fantastic No. 1 receiver. Receiver Will Fuller, a 2016 first-round pick, had some promising moments. Running back Lamar Miller was a solid free-agent addition who posted a 1,000-yard season. I thought the Texans were in for a nice breakthrough last season. And they did have a good season in many areas, with one glaring exception.
You can have a lot of key pieces in place, and if you’re incompetent at quarterback your ceiling will be limited. The Texans can look at a 9-7 record, division title and (incredibly fortunate) playoff win and dream about what might have been had Brock Osweiler been decent. He wasn’t.
The Texans paid $72 million over four years for Osweiler last season. On his first drive, he forced a pass that was intercepted by a Chicago Bears team that would finish with just eight interceptions all season. That set the tone. Osweiler was rattled by pressure, never looked comfortable in the offense, played poorly and got benched. Tom Savage then got hurt so Osweiler had the chance to lead a playoff win (kids, this is why “quarterback wins” isn’t a real stat) but the Texans knew he had to go.
This is how desperate the Texans are at quarterback: They traded the Browns a second-round pick just to take Osweiler off their hands. They still haven’t done anything with the money they saved – presumably, it was earmarked for Tony Romo, who retired – which makes it look like they just wasted a second-round pick. Then they sent the No. 25 pick and next year’s first-round pick to move up to No. 12 and take Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, the third quarterback in this year’s draft class.
Maybe general manager Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien are desperately trying to take the next step with a talented roster that just needs a quarterback. Maybe they realize they can’t survive a terrible season and needed to do something dramatic to protect their jobs. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. But the Texans have spent $37 million on Osweiler, turned the No. 25 pick and a 2018 first-rounder into the No. 12 pick and all they have to show for that is Watson, who smart NFL draft analysts have serious questions about. That doesn’t seem efficient. And this entire mess could have been avoided if Derek Carr had a different last name.
Maybe the carousel stops with Watson. Goodness knows Smith and O’Brien need him to be the answer. Watson was an awesome college player, and you have to admire how he carved up Alabama in two straight CFP title games, considering Alabama is as close to an NFL junior-varsity defense as you’ll find. There are worse gambles than putting all your chips on someone like Watson, who has succeeded on a big stage and draws rave reviews for his character.
Even if Watson does a Dak Prescott imitation, the Texans weren’t nearly as good as last season’s record. It’s not often you’ll see a playoff team that was outscored by 49 points, as Houston was. Eight of their nine wins came by seven points or less. They finished 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric, and it’s impossible to believe a playoff team will ever finish lower. They had a putrid offense and even worse special teams. The offensive line comes in as a question, with right tackle Derek Newton already out for the season after tearing both patella tendons and left tackle Duane Brown’s minicamp holdout due to his contract. There are issues to fix other than just the quarterback position.
But a competent quarterback is the most important piece. If the Texans had a quarterback who was middle of the NFL pack, the rest of the problems wouldn’t seem so bad. And if Watson isn’t the answer, one assumes the Texans will keep investing assets to finally find someone who can be.
NFL Justice goes easy on RB JONATHAN WILLIAMS. Kevin Patra at NFL.com:
The Buffalo Bills received some good news regarding running back Jonathan Williams.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that the second-year tailback was informed by the NFL he won’t be disciplined under the substance abuse policy, per a source informed of the situation.
The news comes after Williams was recently found not guilty of driving under the influence, stemming from a July 2016 arrest.
As a rookie, Williams appeared in 11 games for the Bills, rushing 27 times for 94 yards and a touchdown.
The lack of a suspension is great news for the Bills’ backfield. Williams is the favorite for the primary backup role behind LeSean McCoy in Buffalo this season after last year’s backup Mike Gillislee left for New England.
THIS AND THAT
There’s only so much brush you can clear on the farm. Brett Favre may be getting bored. Jason Wilde of ESPNWisconsin:
– Late in his playing career with the Packers, Brett Favre used to talk about “pulling an Elway.” That’s what he saw as the ultimate way to walk away from the game — winning the Super Bowl before retiring.
These days, Favre said he has entertained the thought of pulling a different type of Elway: becoming an NFL general manager the way fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway has with the Denver Broncos.
During his appearance on ESPN Wisconsin’s Wilde & Tausch on Thursday, Favre said he has contemplated getting back into the NFL as a general manager or coach.
“That type of stuff has crossed my mind,” said Favre, 47, whose playing career ended in 2010. “Because it’s no different to me than coaching. It’s being involved in the game in some aspect.”
Favre spent two years coaching at Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, after retiring.
“When I coached high school football for two years, it really wasn’t on my radar,” Favre said. “My dad did it for many, many, many years, [but] I thought, ‘I just don’t have anything left in the tank from a competitive side. What type of coach would I be?’
“I always thought I would be a good coach, but I didn’t know if I had the effort in me. Well, I did. I’ll tell you what, it was a joy. The competitive spirit came right back. It was obviously different than playing, and so I had a lot of fun.”
Brett Favre said it’d be “a dream job” to again work for the Packers, either as a coach or in the front office. “I don’t want to create a stir [by talking about it], because who knows?” Favre said. “But I would say, ‘Never say never.'” Scott Heckel/The Canton Repository via AP
Favre admitted a front-office position would be difficult, just because of the business aspects associated with it.
“I think the competitive spirit would be there,” Favre said. “It’s just different because there’s such a business side to it. I don’t know if I would have that in me. Picking good players is always in art — and some do it better than others — and there’s some luck involved and things like that. But, yeah, it’s crossed my mind, just like coaching has.”
Favre, who played 16 years for the Packers before an acrimonious split in 2008, reconciled with the franchise two years ago and was inducted into Canton last summer, with throngs of Packers fans in attendance.
Favre pointed out that Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr followed a similar post-football path with the Packers, serving as the head coach from 1975 through 1983. And two of Favre’s former backups in Green Bay — Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson and Brigham Young offensive coordinator Ty Detmer — have found success in coaching.
“I would say, I’d never say never. I believe that would be a dream job, working as a coach there or in some form of administration,” Favre said. “I don’t know, and I don’t want to create a stir [by talking about it], because who knows? But I would say, ‘Never say never.’
“People have talked about the broadcasting booth. I think I’d be pretty good at it, but you never know. I know Bart went back [to Green Bay] and did it and it wasn’t as successful as everyone would have assumed. I’m not going to think I would be any different, but it is an intriguing option. What better place to do it? Yeah, it’s crossed my mind.”
However, Favre said any such NFL pursuits will remain on hold until his youngest daughter, Breleigh, finishes her college volleyball career at Southern Miss. Breleigh will be a freshman for the Golden Eagles this fall.
“I feel like that if I don’t coach or work at that level in some point of my life, that I’m going to waste a lot of knowledge that I have that I should be using it with kids — or adults, at that [NFL] level,” Favre said. “Right now, I don’t want to miss any of Breleigh’s volleyball career, so I’m really not even thinking about it until that day comes.”
A LOUDER VOICE
Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report says Colin Kaepernick is not a one and done. There is a wave of NFL players who are anxious to be heard on matters big and small. And, we have Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to thank for some of it.
If you thought political activism among NFL players ended with the shunning of Colin Kaepernick, you couldn’t be more wrong.
“What Colin Kaepernick did is just the spark,” Eagles defender Malcolm Jenkins said Monday. “What’s coming after that is going to be a bigger wave, a more collective and concerted effort to use this platform of sports to try to make some change.”
That’s not idle talk. Political activism in football, and across sports in general, is about to become better organized, informed, directed and supported. It will become impossible to ignore or marginalize. The groundwork is already in place. The small circle of “activist athletes” is about to grow considerably.
While he bristles at the title, Jenkins has become the NFL’s ranking “activist.” He’s certainly the busiest. Jenkins was in New York on Monday, speaking at the Hashtag Sports leadership conference. Last week, he was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, lobbying state lawmakers to reject the rollback of a prison-reform bill. Prison reform was also the topic of an op-ed piece Jenkins co-authored with Anquan Boldin and Lions defenders Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi in early June; Jenkins and Boldin headlined a group on NFL players who lobbied for the same cause in Washington in March.
Jenkins outlined his strategy to spread the word about prison reform and other social-justice causes at Eagles OTAs in June. “There are different ways to communicate and put pressure on those who make decisions,” he said at the time. “We’ve been to Capitol Hill a couple of times. We’re writing op-eds. We’re doing interviews. It’s just another part of our effort to educate the masses on what’s going on.”
There are others on the NFL’s activism circuit: Bolden, Quin and Bademosi, Michael Thomas (whom we will hear from in a moment), Michael and Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall and more. But the same dozen names pop up whenever the NFL crosses paths with politics—especially “controversial” topics like prison reform or police brutality.
But what happens when the Jenkins-Boldin-Bennett generation of NFL activist ages out of the NFL? Will anyone take their place? Younger players must be a little nervous about speaking their minds now that Kaepernick is either being strategically blackballed from the NFL or subjected to a unique and unprecedented set of employment obstacles that apply exclusively to him (which is precisely how strategic blackballing works).
Jenkins and the handful of the NFL’s outspoken social advocates are not doing it all by themselves, however. A new generation of informed, emboldened athletes is just about to arrive.
“There are many more players than people realize who want to be active and use their platform to advocate for a better world,” Jocelyn Benson, the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), told B/R. “We’re just beginning to see the opportunities to inspire and train the next generation of athletes.”
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross founded RISE in 2015. The initial plan was to work behind the scenes, supporting educational initiatives and community-level programs to improve race relations and other social inequities. As the national climate changed, RISE found itself becoming more upfront and hands-on.
RISE now acts as a support network for activist athletes, helping the out-front types like Jenkins connect with newcomers who want to get involved. “Our goal is also to encourage them to support one another so we don’t have an instance where an athlete feels they are out there taking the heat on their own,” Benson said.
RISE has also instituted an ambitious educational program at major universities around the country. The program helps coaches and players learn “leadership skills through the lens of race relations,” according to Benson. Young players who want to get more involved can then enroll in additional RISE-sponsored programs, some of which will prepare them to speak at town hall meetings or meet with lawmakers.
Not every athlete with a hunger for social justice is cut out to be a firebrand spokesperson. But according to Benson, not many are cowering because of the current political environment, either. Just the opposite, in fact.
“Given the current climate, college students want to be a part of changing things,” she said. “There’s an eagerness to identify how they can connect. It’s really inspiring.”
Both Benson and Jenkins say these eager new recruits are already arriving in the NFL. Right now, they are learning the ropes of activism, just as rookies keep their heads down and learn their new roles and playbooks. As their confidence grows, so will their voices.
In the meantime, the leaders of today’s activist movement are finding new ways to combine their efforts.
Jenkins announced Monday that he is among the founders of the Players Coalition, comprised of athletes across multiple sports and leagues. The group will connect regional players to local causes where athlete involvement can make a difference. If lawmakers are mulling a prison-reform bill in Louisiana, for example, the Players Coalition will mobilize Saints, Pelicans, LSU grads and so forth to raise awareness, lobby politicians and make their opinions heard.
This is political activity at the database-management and tactical-deployment level, which is a long way from kneeling during the national anthem amid a pre-election maelstrom. Benson’s first day at RISE was the Monday after Kaepernick’s first Sunday night protest. Michael Thomas and his Dolphins teammates began their protest roughly two weeks later. Benson began sending 4 a.m. text messages before she even settled into her desk; her goal was to help “add meat to the bones of these symbolic gestures.”
Thomas, who spoke alongside Jenkins on Monday, embodies the RISE mission. His anthem protest became an extension of his The First Step program, which connects police officers and at-risk youth at pregame tailgates, town hall meetings and other local events to improve police-community relations.
“It’s not just about taking a knee,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to take next steps. We’re trying to find solutions.”
Support networks are critical for activist athletes. The fear of repercussions remains real, even as RISE wins awards and non-superstars like Thomas become increasingly bold about speaking out.
“You have to make the decision: This is bigger than me,” Thomas said. “Am I willing to put on the line everything I worked so hard for my whole life to make a statement? For me, that’s the case.”
Athletes are also finding support among lawmakers…or at least potential lawmakers. Jim Keady, Democratic candidate for New Jersey’s Fourth Congressional District, spoke alongside Michael Bennett on a sport-and-activism panel at The People’s Summit in Chicago in early June.
“Because athletics present such a platform, there is a moral responsibility on the part of athletes to utilize it,” Keady said.
Keady felt the blowback from using even a small-scale sports platform to buck the system two decades ago. As an NCAA soccer coach and minor league player, he went toe-to-toe with Nike over the sneaker manufacturer’s international labor practices.
Keady soon found himself unable to get either a coaching job or a roster spot on any minor league soccer teams. Even his social life suffered. “When I walked into a party, it was like someone pulled the needle across the record,” he said.
It was a small-scale version of the mysterious unemployability a certain quarterback now faces. “When the empire decides to strike back, it’s always been the same way,” he said.
Jenkins put it even more succinctly. “There’s no such thing as a safe activist.”
There’s an unfortunate partisanship to activism, as well as pretty much everything else these days. Cutting through that political polarization and the racial semiotics to just get people across the aisle to listen may be more than half the battle for the modern activist athlete. Then again, that’s nothing new. “The guys who raised their fists at the Olympics: They weren’t given warm hugs and kisses when they got home,” Keady said.
Benson admits that the RISE program meets some resistance from players and coaches whose guards go up the moment they hear about a “safe space” to discuss multiple perspectives. But everyone wants to win, so most come to realize that better communication leads to better camaraderie and teamwork. Benson described the prevailing mindset as: “I can learn to be a better teammate if I understand and can talk about these issues.”
College players aren’t the only ones listening to the message. RISE gave a two-hour presentation at NFL headquarters in December. Roger Goodell attended. “Management listened,” Benson said.
“I think there’s much more conversation in the higher offices of the NFL, other leagues and clubs across the country than ever before,” Benson said. And contrary to the NFL’s image, that conversation is not about stomping out the embers of dissent. “It’s more about being supportive while also keeping an eye on the ball.”
That backup is something activist athletes crave. They want teams and leagues to stand beside them on social-justice issues in the same way the powers that be support breast-cancer awareness or military causes. “We see what it looks like when the league and teams want to partner with the players,” Jenkins said. “But they haven’t taken that initiative.”
One thing at a time. It’s only been a year since Jenkins and others kicked their political action into high gear, less than a year since Kaepernick knelt and Benson’s first day on the job began before dawn. We’re now in very strange times when even the phrase “social justice,” let alone “Black Lives Matter,” is met with resistance and suspicion.
Perhaps this new better-equipped, better-prepared wave of political action won’t crash as hard into the brick wall of get the hell out of America if you don’t like it opposition Kaepernick faced. Then again, without Kaepernick’s protest, activism among athletes would neither be as visible nor as galvanized at it has become.
“He woke guys up in the NFL,” Jenkins said. “He showed us how much power we have if we choose to use this platform that we have.
“If Colin Kaepernick can shake up the world that much with his one voice, imagine what all of these athletes across different sports can do.”