Wojo: From the Lions to the NBA, the cry for justice grows

Detroit News

Allen Park – To be heard, sometimes you must go silent. To stand up, sometimes you must sit down.

That’s what happened Wednesday, an extraordinary day in American sports, in the midst of extraordinarily volatile times. The NBA, which went to extreme measures to launch its playoffs in an Orlando bubble, went quiet, three games postponed as players protested police brutality and racial injustice. Some major-league baseball players and teams followed.

Justice by protest is the method of choice these days, and unfortunately, the method of necessity. In the wake of another police shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc., it’s not enough to say to enough is enough. It never has been. It wasn’t enough for the Lions, who sat out their practice Tuesday to plead for change. It was amazing to see, the type of poignant, provocative stand the Lions historically never make.

In a leadership void, other voices emerge, and we heard from LeBron James and his fellow NBA stars, and from Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who tearfully said, “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Amid all the despair, from the pandemic to the recession to the unrelenting unrest and unanswered questions about police tactics, perhaps there is some inspiration. Sports has often been a tool to be heard, although usually a tool of last resort.

Not anymore. I don’t think the Lions’ protest sparked what followed. I think two more shootings and utter chaos in the streets of Kenosha, as well as the raw video of Blake’s shooting, sparked it. Blake reportedly is paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back by a police officer, after refusing to be subdued.

This is the sad, sorrowful awakening, and who knows when it will end. There can be no rush to judgment but patience is waning, with George Floyd’s murder a mere three months ago. As long as the protests are peaceful, they’re meaningful, and so is the conversation.

When the Lions made their statement, it was startling and emotional. And then, barely 24 hours later, the Milwaukee Bucks went farther and said they wouldn’t play. Representing the state of Wisconsin, it absolutely was the right call.

More: Niyo: Lions practicing what they preached on racial justice

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More: ‘Change needs to happen’: Lions cancel practice to speak out against Jacob Blake shooting

So what becomes of this? There will be more protests, and perhaps the rest of the NBA season is in jeopardy. There will be more statements in NFL training camps, and who knows what the mood will be when the games actually start.

In times like this, you look for direction. Encouragingly, that’s what the Lions have done. You know the long-standing complaint, that the Lions are a fractured franchise that can’t sustain success because individuals often supersede team goals. The leaders generally aren’t strong enough or loud enough to command attention and chart a course.

Fair points. So what do we make of the team-wide statement to forego practice and focus on racial divides? With no guarantee they’d be cheered or scorned, the Lions were the only NFL team to deliver such a message, and it was pitch-perfect.

It wasn’t about anger or political maneuvering. It wasn’t about name-calling or race-shaming. It was about leadership bubbling to the surface, from Matt Patricia to Matthew Stafford to Trey Flowers and others who spoke in ways we’ve never heard before, voices cracking. As they did, they stood next to a whiteboard that read, “The World Can’t Go On” and “We Won’t Be Silent!!”

It was spontaneous, not polished or choreographed, with no hidden agendas or demands. If you take nothing else out of it, take this – you heard the voices of leadership. You heard players who have been criticized for underachieving and a coach criticized for being unyielding.

To hard-core fans, the display of unity won’t mean anything until the Lions show more on the field. OK, fine. To me, it looked like something deeper, beyond an appropriate display of humanity.

“I’m just proud of our guys for speaking and leading,” Patricia said. “This is a player-led team, there’s no doubt. These guys are great, super intelligent, super smart, and they have some amazing things to say that, quite frankly, I just have to listen and follow. I challenge everybody in the league to do it, to go out there and continue these conversations and to listen.”

Challenge accepted, apparently.

Now, if you want to turn this into a political debate, please turn away. I’m not here to do that. Seriously, I’ll give you a minute. Leave.

The roiling national discussions devolve into a pit of misinformation and tired talking points. The full story from Kenosha has not been revealed, although the graphic video is starkly unambiguous. It’s beyond obvious this nation has racial problems and no idea how to fix them.

The NBA protest will be much-bigger news, and you hope it leads to productive discussion. NFL teams are uniquely constructed for that, as diversified as any sport. The Lions spent all day talking and listening, coaches and players, trainers and equipment guys, black and white, young and old. Will it help spur change in the greater society? Not by itself.

But it says something when a team with nothing to gain by speaking out, left bare and unprotected by its losing reputation, leads the way. That the Lions stepped boldly into this void isn’t totally surprising, as they’ve bonded through the pandemic, via Zoom or informal workouts. And maybe that’s the point. Change from within must come first.

What was the knock on Patricia in his two first seasons here? He was stubborn, distant, arrogant. He has learned and seemingly evolved, and every player praised him for his support of the protest.

What has been the knock on Stafford in 12 seasons here? That he’s a perfectly nice guy with a great arm who lacks the fire to lead through tough times. The gravity in his voice after listening to Black teammates tell stories of racist incidents suggested Stafford is newly affected. Last week, he and his wife Kelly donated $1.5 million to their alma mater, Georgia, of which $350,000 was earmarked for a social justice reform program.

“On a day like today, I’ve never been more proud to be a part of this team and a member of the NFL,” Stafford said. “The first-hand stories from my teammates is something until the day I die will never forget. Guys telling stories they haven’t told anybody before, and they feel comfortable enough in our locker room to tell the guys and the coaches. It was incredible, it was awesome.”

Flowers is the Lions’ second-highest paid player, in his second season after signing from New England. He’s been a solid player and quiet leader, and sounds ready to do more.

 “I want to point out how unified we are, how we came together in this building, inside these walls, between those lines,” said Flowers, who’s Black. “You might step on some toes, you might ruffle some feathers, but in order for change to happen, someone has to be uncomfortable.”

They spoke eloquently of what they learned from each other, and unity always is the best theme in a sport as brutal as football. Stick together because the danger is real. The better you know and respect your teammates, the better you’re likely to perform. Looking out for each other is what football players are trained to do.

It’s what society struggles so badly to do. It’s what the NBA players are again demanding someone do. The issue of racial strife in America should be everyone’s cause, black and white, but those with the stage are the ones who can push it. And so it continues, no end in sight.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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