Niyo: Lions practicing what they preached on racial justice

Detroit News

Allen Park — They made a promise, and they kept it.

So if you’re wondering where all this is coming from, or where it’s going, you should probably start there. The Detroit Lions didn’t simply cancel a practice Tuesday. They did more than speak up. They aren’t just taking a stand.

They’re staying true to their word.

And in this day and age, that’s something that should be applauded, and respected.

“Talk about brave,” head coach Matt Patricia said Tuesday, not long after the Lions had marched out of the team’s headquarters en masse and announced, in the middle of training camp, “it’s not about football today.”

It’s not, because it couldn’t be. Not after what they’d seen and what they’d heard, in the wake of another police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, Sunday afternoon in Kenosha, Wisconsin. And certainly not after what they’d been talking about for several weeks now, as the Lions bonded together as a team this offseason largely because of the way they shared their differences. Honestly, and freely.

“Trey Flowers said something in the spring to me that was so, so impactful to me,” Patricia said Tuesday after his players had spoken. “He said, ‘It could be so simple: Just listen.”

Are we? Are we, really? That’s the question our society will have to answer eventually. And it’s still anything but simple for far too many among us — listening instead of shouting, recoiling instead of reconsidering — which is why this decision Tuesday was harder than it looked, as dozens of Lions players gathered on a sidewalk in front of their workplace a few hours after a scheduled practice that never took place.

But it’s also why it was so important, that the Lions, of all teams, took a stand and led the way, becoming the first NFL team to do something quite this bold.

Solidarity 

“Been a lot of days in my life that I’ve been proud to be a Detroit Lion and a quarterback in the NFL,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said, “but probably never an offseason, and really a day like today, that I’ve been more proud to be a part of this team and a member of the NFL and do what I do.”

Stafford, who along with his wife, Kelly, made a $350,000 donation last week to fund an endowment for a social-justice initiative at the University of Georgia, wasn’t one of the players who took to the microphone to speak initially Tuesday. Some of the team’s other veteran leaders took the microphone, starting with safety Duron Harmon, who signed as a free agent with Detroit in March after spending the last seven seasons in New England.

“I want you to document: The Detroit Lions will be for change,” Harmon told the small group of us who’d been waiting since mid-morning to cover another mundane late-August practice. “We won’t be silent. We will play football and we will do everything we can to win football games. But we will do everything we can to create change as well.”

And if that creates some waves, so be it.

“One thing we understand about America and about people in America is that the narrative can get shifted,” said Flowers, who anchors the Lions’ defense, both physically and emotionally. “You might step on some toes, you might ruffle some feathers. But in order for change to happen, someone has to be uncomfortable. Everyone inside these walls understands that and understands the backlash it’s going to come with this — how the media tries to depict it or how fans try to depict it and say there’s no room for politics in football.

“But like I say, we’re football players … but we’re human.”

And that’s what made Tuesday’s show of solidarity so powerful in Allen Park, too: the humanity involved. This was truly organic, and you could plainly see that as all the Lions’ players, coaches and trainers came streaming out the door at about 1:30 p.m. Da’Shawn Hand and Bo Scarbrough wheeled out a whiteboard with “The World Can’t Go On,” written in dry-erase marker on one side and “We Won’t Be Silent” on the other. Nose tackle Danny Shelton’s cut-off T-shirt read: “We Demand Justice.” Everyone wore a mask, including the players who spoke, but no one was hiding.

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This public display started with private conversations like the one Harmon had with Josh Schuler, the Lions’ strength and conditioning coach, shortly after he arrived at the practice facility Tuesday morning. It then blossomed in a team meeting that Patricia began with a heartfelt message to his players, acknowledging the “heavy hearts” in the room before letting them have the floor.

“He kind of just opened up space for us to talk,” Harmon said, “and that conversation went everywhere.”

For the Lions, it’s actually a conversation that began a few months ago, following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the protests against police brutality and racial injustice that reverberated across the country. The Lions paused their virtual meetings in early June and spent the better part of a week sharing their feelings and their stories, talking about some of those issues.

Perspective check

They vowed to continue that discussion throughout the summer, and they have, to everyone’s credit. But even though they’re back on the field now, with the season opener less than three weeks away, it became apparent rather quickly Tuesday that, as Stafford admitted, “football was the last thing on our mind, to be honest with you.”

 “You could become numb to it and be like, ‘Man, it’s just another day,’” Harmon said. “But no, it’s not just another day.”

It’s not just another “officer-involved shooting,” either. It’s another one that feels like a murder to far too many of us. Particularly inside a locker room where the majority of players look at the video of Blake being shot repeatedly in the back and, as Flowers explained Tuesday, “we see our sons, we see our brothers, we see our fathers, we see our cousins, our nephews.” 

Or their teammates, which is something Taylor Decker, the Lions’ starting left tackle, brought up Tuesday. As emotional as some of those Zoom meetings got back in June, it was nothing compared to the sort of in-person dialogue they’re having now, and Decker, who is white, got choked up as he recounted one of the stories a teammate had shared.

“Every day his mom checks on him to make sure he made it home from work — every single day,” Decker said. “He says, ‘Mom, you know where I’m at. You know I’m at the building all day. I just drive home.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got that 23-minute drive. I just want to make sure you’re OK.’”

What struck Decker most about that story, though, was how different it was from his own.

More: Tuesday’s NFL: Lawyers argue league concussion awards discriminate against Blacks

“I was driving home the other night and Romeo Okwara was driving by me, and he hit me up and said, ‘You got a headlight out,’” Decker said. “The same guy whose mother was concerned about him getting home was concerned he had an out-of-state license plate and a different ID, and what might happen. Well, I’ve got an Arizona license, a Michigan license plate, and not for one second — not for one second — was I concerned about getting pulled over, or anything happening to me. …

“I’ve been fortunate to be in a locker room with white, black, brown, different socioeconomic backgrounds, guys from all over the country. And 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. I know it’s not my reality, but they shouldn’t have to go through that, they shouldn’t have that fear.”

But as long as they do, we should have these conversations. And players can — and should — use their platforms to amplify them. And so long as we’re all caught in this “inescapable network of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, we might as well talk about what that really means. 

“It’s not gonna go away,” Decker said. “So what we should do is be that change, be that catalyst. … 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.”

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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