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August 31, 2020

John McMullen: Why an NFL civil rights strike isn't happening

Opinion NFL

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Jeffery Lurie - Philadelphia Eagles Training Camp Linc Bastiaan Slabbers/for PhillyVoice

Eagle's owner Jeffrey Lurie at training camp practice at Lincoln Financial Field last summer.

The idea is gaining steam from at least some who cover the NFL, but the end game is never defined and the repercussions of a so-called "civil-rights strike" never discussed.

For that reason, don't take threats of a work-stoppage seriously by those caught up in the emotion of incendiary topics.

Eagles owner Jeffery Lurie was the latest to discuss players potentially wanting to postpone or even cancel games.

"I'm not concerned because I'm supportive of everything that's involved in terms of trying to create attention and social change, and I've always been that way," Lurie said. "If we have to sacrifice, we have to sacrifice.”

Then came the advice.

“But my most important opportunity to discuss that would be what can we do that's really effective, and it's not simply a statement but something that's going to have action involved with it," he added.

Lurie's not the first to point out gestures are nice but actions are better and he'll hardly be the last.

Talk of powerful platforms is relative. Compared to the average citizen, athletes and owners like Lurie have prodigious soapboxes. An unofficial local media Zoom record of 50 local and national reporters logged on to talk with Lurie Sunday and hear a 17-minute opening statement touching on what he called the two pandemics in this country — systemic racism and COVID-19.

Compared to the real power brokers in Washington D.C., however, Lurie's akin to the fly buzzing by the elephant. Players are even less equipped to spur change if we’re being completely honest.

“I mean, we're not running, obviously, the government. We're not in positions of power,” Lurie admitted when discussing himself and other owners. ”But we're in positions of access. We're in positions of having resources.” 

One of Adam Schefter's bosses may have graded the Baltimore Ravens' statement calling for substantive action regarding many issues that are passionate for a lot of their players the “Best statement I’ve ever seen from a sports team."

But, what does that even mean?

As Lurie explained the Ravens and Steve Bisciotti have no lobbying power or significant influence with those who could push change, and who exactly at ESPN is grading releases from sports teams anyway? More so, why is it important that aggregators picked up on such a hollow gesture and defined it as meaningful?

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo was famous for saying "You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

In this little morality play, statements like the Ravens' is the poetry and real-world action, like, say, Bruce Arians' hiring practices, is the substantive prose.

Yet, the Tampa Bay coach is in hot water for telling his players the truth.

Arians explained that taking action was more important than protesting as other teams canceled practices in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

“I think your responsibility is to take action. I don't know if protest is an action,” Arians said.

That was the headline many used to vilify an easy target, absent the context of the coach begging his players to act.

“I think each guy has a personal thing. I would beg [them] to take action," Arians said. "Find a cause and either support it financially or do something to change the situation. Because protesting doesn't do crap in my opinion. I've been seeing it since 1968.”

NFLPA president DeMaurice Smith clapped back to Arians’ comments on Twitter, writing: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it’s clear he is woefully misinformed about the history of protest both within sports and in America.”

The back-and-forth continued with Arians lobbing back “Yeah, I have a history. It might be a little bit longer than his.”

That history includes being the first white player to room with an African-American at Virginia Tech and perhaps, more importantly, being one of the few who puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to his hiring practices. Arians is the only coach in the NFL with an African-American in every major coordinator position. Byron Leftwich is his offensive coordinator, Todd Bowles is his defensive coordinator, and Keith Armstrong is his special teams coordinator.

Think about that. 

Even the few minority coaches in the league haven't been as actionable when it comes to the Rooney Rule as the guy getting criticized for not accompanying his demonstrated performance with the proper gesture.

Too many value saying the right thing over doing the right thing.

Maybe Lurie, Bisciotti or some other owner with another NFL team pulls a rabbit out of the hat and turns into a meaningful force when it comes to social-justice reform, but they don't have to as long as observers are satiated by the poetry. 

The Ravens won on Twitter. Lurie won on Zoom and the heavy lifting is left for others.

The point here isn't to dismiss anyone's emotions, but too much of this fight is focused on feelings. 

The NBA — for all its hype — was talked off a ledge by NBPA president Michele Roberts. Smith will do the same for NFL players if he has to, but it’s unlikely to come to that. About 1,700 players aren't giving up high-paying jobs for pie-in-the-sky policy demands fueled by anecdotal evidence.

That's not to say individual players won't boycott a game or two if they feel that's a meaningful protest, especially those with the means to take the financial hit.

PhillyVoice asked Eagles safety Rodney McLeod if he had given any thought to boycotting games.

“Yeah, I have but I think it only makes a real impact if all are included," the veteran leader, who is a member of the organization’s social-justice committee said. "One person isn’t going to make a difference. We have to all stand together and that’s all 32 teams potentially doing something like that or as a whole team or organization."

McLeod went on to say there is strength in numbers.

"One individual isn’t going to make a true difference," he reiterated. "If that’s something that needs to get done, I’m sure the leaders amongst the league and teams will talk about that, but I think the difference was it wasn’t just the Milwaukee Bucks that decided to walk away, it was potentially all the playoff teams involved in the bubble really made the true impact and attention I guess that was needed during this time.”

“Potentially” is the key word there because the NBA is still playing. The strength is in the numbers, it’s just a different number -- the billions in revenue that players will be forfeiting for poetry's sake.

You may not like Arians the orator, but he's practical — keep your money and do something worthwhile with it.

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John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for PhillyVoice and You can reach him at

Follow John on Twitter: @JFMcMullen