Opinion: Ravens’ call to action is a lesson on social justice for NFL’s power brokers

We’re living in the age of the statement.

Yet with the well-meaning empathy, butt-covering intentions or something in between, too often the words and videos crafted by NFL teams or the league office to address one issue after another have all the soul of a boilerplate. Plus, as the intermingling of sports and society increases and pressure to say something mounts, there’s surely an over-saturation factor in play.

Then came the statement from the Baltimore Ravens.

It wasn’t as dramatic as the gestures this week from NBA, WNBA, MLB and MLS players, and tennis star Naomi Osaka, boycotting games and matches to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake and pattern of police violence against African-Americans. It wasn’t Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee.

But the Ravens’ call to action released on Thursday night was so bold with the declarations I know I’ve never seen expressed before on letterhead from an NFL team.

Never mind the typical, vague stuff in statements about sparking conversations and promoting unity.

The Ravens, bless ‘em, urged for the arrests of police responsible for the killing of Breonna Taylor and shooting of Blake. They want Mitch McConnell to bring the George Floyd Policing Act to a vote on the Senate floor. They want to see an end to qualified immunity while holding police more accountable in court, in addition to banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants. They want sentencing reform.

And they want us to vote, too.

So there. Why do NFL players and other pro athletes kneel, boycott, protest, tweet, march and flood their platforms in the name of social progress?

For tangible, ever-evolving action items, as the Ravens amplified, that need to happen.

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Head coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens looks on during the Baltimore Ravens Training Camp at Under Armour Performance Center Baltimore Ravens on August 17, 2020 in Owings Mills, Maryland. (Photo: Patrick Smith, Getty Images)

Of course, not everyone agrees. This is America, where Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher can reveal himself on social media as an insensitive buffoon by dismissing the merits of the NBA player protests. And it’s where Matt Forte can aptly weigh in with his opinion on Twitter that Urlacher, his former Bears teammate, arrogantly posted with a “void of empathy, compassion, wisdom and coherence.”

In the Ravens' case, there’s no way the meaning of their statement can be twisted in translation or sideswiped by emotion – unless someone refuses to grasp the words in black and white.

“I think the statement was really great, because it was very specific, and it outlined the things that we’re going to do in terms of initiatives that we want to support,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters during a Zoom conference on Friday.

Is this a football team or a political organization?

It’s a football team, made up of American citizens who care enough to use their tremendous platform. If they don’t see the action they’ve demanded, apparently it won’t be for lack of trying.

“I really wish that everybody could be part of a football team … (coming) from a lot of different places and races and spaces and religions, just many different perspectives,” Harbaugh said. “They have to come together and stand together, even given their differences, to work together to find mutual understanding and to create a brotherhood, really, like a family does.”

Harbaugh acknowledged there are many other environments where the opportunity exists for people with different perspectives to co-exist, yet his view is valid. And perhaps in this challenging NFL season that looms amid a pandemic, the Ravens might draw on the unity fostered during heart-to-heart discussions to help with their shared mission of winning football games.

More significant is the carry-over effect. This statement wasn’t a do-as-we-say declaration. The team is working with its counsel to connect with lawmakers to advance lobbying efforts, much like the Players Coalition, co-founded by Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and former Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, has pursued multiple legislative goals.    

Harbaugh said the Ravens are pushing for a Congressional bill that addresses police reform that he insists has bipartisan support and the support of police departments and police unions. Another idea is to raise funds for body cameras for police in municipalities that can’t afford them.

“Those types of things that can be valuable and directly helpful,” Harbaugh said. “We’re passionate about what we’re talking about, but … we have tremendous respect for our police, for what they do, the work they put in, the sacrifices they make. That was stated in our team meeting numerous times by our players and by our coaches.”

Seems as though the Ravens have gone beyond just listening.

A few weeks ago, in a response to a video featuring star NFL players in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a policeman in Minneapolis, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded with a video of his own, in which he maintained that the NFL – despite various meetings with players, much public rhetoric and close to $90 million committed to social justice causes – didn’t listen to players enough after the issues exploded on the NFL stage with Kaepernick in 2016.

Well, now, listening is so 2016.

It’s 2020. Here’s to hoping that Goodell and other NFL power brokers who can throw their clout behind pursuing items suggested by the Ravens don’t tell us a few years from now that they regret not taking action.

By Friday afternoon, another statement was issued by an NFL team with “action items” aimed to address pressing social issues. The Minnesota Vikings declared three action items: urging citizens to vote, supporting educational measures and advocating for law enforcement and criminal justice reform.

What wasn’t clear from the Vikings’ statement, though, were the specifics needed to achieve tangible progress.

Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – the face of resistance to player protests during the national anthem – went on his 105.3 The Fan radio appearance and talked about wanting his organization and players to be a part of the change needed to make this country a better place.

OK, where’s the action plan?

Like always, but especially in these times, action speaks louder than words.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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