Carson Wentz, the North-Dakota-bred quarterback of the Eagles who is so white as to be nearly translucent, stood in front of a microphone Thursday and said that Black people who clash with police officers “don’t deserve to die in the street,” even when they haven’t complied with police directives.
Safety Jalen Mills talked about growing up in Texas and the bandage a teenage friend had to wear on his face for weeks after being tased by police, when he and Mills were among a group of Black kids ordered not to move during an innocent gathering at a movie theater.
“The Taser had burnt his face,” Mills recalled.
Safety Rodney McLeod, a Black man from Maryland, said it was time for billionaire pro sports owners — who might carry more weight politically than athletes can muster — to stand up and demand justice.
“The challenge is now on these owners. We want them to speak out on a lot of these issues that exist, for their players,” McLeod said. “Just as much as we’re held accountable, and we represent each organization a certain way when we leave this building, we expect them to now stand up and speak out on these issues to protect us as Black men.”
McLeod said that owners should “not only support us privately, but step up and support us publicly, as well, as we deal with these issues.”
Like so much else that has happened in 2020, the Eagles hosting a series of Zoom news conferences with such a theme was something no one could have predicted a year ago. But life seems to be coming at us fast.
McLeod made the biggest demand, Mills told the most poignant anecdote, but Wentz’s words were the biggest surprise, the day after the team held an emotional virtual meeting called by coach Doug Pederson, in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
The meeting addressed players’ concerns well enough that the team practiced Thursday, though the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets, Tennessee Titans, and Washington Football Team did not. Maybe the Eagles would have been better off taking those teams’ cue – Andre Dillard, their projected starting left tackle, suffered a biceps tendon tear and is likely to miss the season.
The Dillard news broke after the Zoom conferences, but even if it that very big story had been public, it probably would have not been addressed. Wentz deflected other football questions to focus on racism.
He emphasized his “respect and love” for police and acknowledged that officers are often put in difficult situations. He wondered whether better training might help, given that officers carry guns and have “life and death in your hand sometimes.”
When Wentz spoke out to support teammates following the George Floyd killing this spring, it was a major departure; he had avoided taking any sort of political or social stance. On Thursday, he said racism was “something I’ve chosen to just kind of overlook … something that was so foreign to me,” growing up in a virtually all-white environment. But at 27, after four years in Philadelphia, he said, “I’m no longer just a kid from North Dakota that can just use that card … . There’s hurting in this world.”
One reason athletes don’t stick their necks out more is that they and their teams have fans from different perspectives, who might take offense. Everyone remembers Michael Jordan saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” back in the 1990s, even though he eventually contended it had been a joke to a few teammates.
“Some fans might not like it,” Wentz said, “but, at the end of the day, there’s a hurting community, and we want to reach out and respond to that hurt.”
Mills said he, McLeod, and tight end Zach Ertz spoke during the Wednesday night meeting. McLeod said the team’s social justice committee, scheduled to meet Friday — an off day for the players — will soon announce an action plan that he feels will be more productive than refusing to practice.
Mills called it “one symbolic thing that shows positivity, that shows change, that can show hope.”
“I’m excited for that,” McLeod said. “I don’t want to reveal what that is just yet, but there were conversations amongst us leaders, and we will represent this organization, but most importantly, this city, in the right way, and address … police brutality, education reform, systemic racism – all those things matter to us, and so we will speak out on those.”
McLeod said that until police officers are held accountable, “we will continue to protest, continue to use our voice, and continue to possibly take extreme measures” – the sort of thing “you’re witnessing right now” across the sports world.
Referring to the cancellation of Wednesday’s NBA games, McLeod asked: “When have we ever seen a group of athletes decide not to play a meaningful playoff game?”
It’s difficult to say where all this might be headed. Would NFL teams sit out games if progress isn’t made? McLeod said he could only envision that if all 32 teams agreed, and he said he hasn’t spoken with players from other teams about it.
Racism isn’t a tangible foe that can ever be really conquered, like a division rival. Wentz spoke of “layers to the problem in our country … in our world … too many evil hearts, there’s too many things ingrained in our culture – going back 400 years to now, that are just ingrained in people’s culture and mindset, without a lot of people even knowing it.”
He added, “We can’t solve all the problems, but where can we really focus our efforts? Is it physically getting out into the community? Is it financially supporting an area? Is it bringing light to a certain topic or a certain issue that needs to have a voice? … I can’t put my finger on one thing right now. We have a committee meeting coming up here, and we’re going to talk through a lot of those things … . You want to see real change.”