Allen Park — A little more than three hours after the Detroit Lions were supposed to begin a fresh week of training camp practices, every player and coach filed out the front door of the team’s facility to announce there would be no football on Tuesday.
Angered and frustrated by the weekend news of another case of excessive police violence — an unarmed Black man named Jacob Blake shot in the back seven times while attempting to leave a scene in Kenosha, Wisconsin — the Lions chose to cancel practice after hours of heartfelt conversations dominated their morning meetings.
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Professional sports has unquestionably been on the forefront of the national discussion about social justice in recent years, and following the shooting of Blake, the Lions are seeking to wield the power of their platform in the pursuit of change.
“As we came in today, as a team, we looked each other in the eye and realized that football is not important today,” Lions safety Duron Harmon said, standing in front of his teammates. “We have a platform that we’re able to use to not only raise awareness, but to create change. And we decided that today we were gonna step forward and we were gonna create change.
“While some people think we’re just football players, this league, 67 percent, two-thirds of its players are African American. Jacob Blake could’ve been anybody’s brother, cousin, uncle, friend. It could’ve been them, and it wasn’t OK. We’re not here for it. The Detroit Lions organization is gonna make a stand, that what happened to Jacob Blake is not OK and we’re gonna speak out on it.”
Harmon was one of three players to speak at the gathering Tuesday afternoon, along with defensive lineman Trey Flowers and offensive tackle Taylor Decker. Some players wore shirts with related messaging, while the entire group stood in front of a whiteboard that read, “The world can’t go on,” an unofficial motto for the moment.
The typically soft-spoken Flowers has become one of Detroit’s leading voices for social justice, recently taking part in a voter education summit. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Alabama native had family members take part in marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, fighting for that right for Black Americans to vote.
Decker, who is white, spoke emotionally about how much the conversations with his teammates on Tuesday, and throughout the offseason, have been eye-opening. He shared a story about a Black teammate who gets a call from his mother every night, just to make sure he made it home safe, despite having just a 20-minute commute.
Decker noted he drove home with a broken headlight the other night in a car with an out-of-state plate that’s different from his driver’s license. In hindsight, it hadn’t occurred to him the same situation would cause high levels of anxiety for some of his teammates.
“Just to hear the pain and the fear the people I care about and people that I love are going through, it’s not OK,” Decker said. “I know it’s not my reality, but they shouldn’t have to go through that, they shouldn’t have that fear. I think we get back here in our bubble and then something like this (Blake shooting) happens again and it’s not gonna go away.
“What we should do is be that change, be that catalyst. That’s what we want to do, that’s what we should do. I want better for my brothers, I want better for my teammates, I want better for the people that I love. That needs to happen, change needs to happen.”
Multiple players, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, praised coach Matt Patricia’s role in how the team handled the day and the offseason on the whole. That has included discussions of the high-profile cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — a relative of Lions safety Tracy Walker, who was killed in a struggle with two white men while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood.
“It’s an incredible group of guys we have in this locker room, led by a coach that is unwavering in his ability to give us space to talk,” Stafford said. “I talked about it all offseason with everybody on these calls, but on our Zoom calls, it was incredible. What an incredible offseason we’ve had with conversations about everything that’s going on in America at the moment. We had another one of those today and really have spent all morning talking about it. You’ve got to give a ton of credit to coach for allowing us to do that.”
Inspired by some of his conversations with teammates earlier this offseason, Stafford and his wife Kelly donated $1.5 million to the University of Georgia this month, with a significant portion of those funds being earmarked for a new social justice program at the school.
In the wake of the Blake shooting, the Lions are looking to further the discussion and take actions where appropriate.
“We are all brothers — the human race,” Flowers said. “We are all one. Once we realize that and overcome the difference of skin color and the difference of culture, then we’ll start to love one another and treat one another as they are us.
“That’s one of things that when people look at a message or see something, they have to see it as themselves — that’s them going through this situation. For us, we’re going to have conversations, we’re going to spread a message and we’re going to do it as a team. We understand somebody’s going to try to screw the narrative and get the message lost, but we’re going to stay focused on the topic. We’re going to push the proper narrative. We’re going to push it with our whole hearts and unite, together.”