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Ron Cook: Sports world's recent response to injustice has been encouraging

Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It started with a brief video on the night of June 5 in response to the death of black man, George Floyd, at the knee of white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis.

"We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people," Roger Goodell said. "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to the players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter."

The response has been deafening.

There was this from Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti in a video with his players: "I don't think I've grown by seeing their anger. I think I've grown by feeling their hurt ... Black Lives Matter."

And this from Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien to the Houston Chronicle when asked if he will kneel with his players during the national anthem this season: "Yeah, I'll take a knee – I'm all for it. The players have a right to protest, a right to be heard and a right to be who they are. They're not taking a knee because they're against our flag. They're taking a knee because they haven't been treated equally in this country for over 400 years."

And this from Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield on Instagram when challenged by a fan not to kneel: "Pull your head out. I absolutely am."

And this from Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, Sports Illustrated's Man of the Year in 2017 and maybe the most respected player in the NFL, when a fan on Twitter suggested that Watt won't be kneeling: "A) don't speak for me. B) if you still think it's about disrespecting the flag or our military, you clearly haven't been listening."

The response has been so loud that the predictable opposition from President Donald Trump barely has been heard.

The NFL has come a long way since Colin Kaepernick took the first knee in 2016 to peacefully protest social injustice and police brutality and soon was blackballed from the league.

Start with Goodell, who was criticized in a New York Times story this week by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for what he did and didn't do in 2016 and 2017: "A smart man is running the NFL and he didn't understand the difference between the flag and what makes the country great – all the people who fought to allow Kaepernick to have the right to kneel for justice. The flag is irrelevant. It's just a symbol that people glom onto for political reasons ... (Goodell) got intimidated when Trump jumped on the kneeling. He folded."

I don't think Goodell and the owners are going to fold this time.

Goodell went on ESPN Monday night and he said he supports and encourages a team to sign Kaepernick.

I don't think most of the country wants to see Goodell cave in to Trump, which is something I don't think I could have written in 2016.

You're going to see a lot of peaceful protests at NFL games this season. You're going to see players – white and black – kneeling for the anthem for the first time. I don't know how you feel about it. I think it's great that the sports world is doing its part to make a better society.

Clearly, the world is changing, not as quickly as all of us would like, but it is changing for the better. The devastating impact of 400 years of racism isn't going to be eased overnight. I know that. But we can't make the country a better place until we admit we have a problem and actually face it head-on. That's why it was so encouraging and instructive that Goodell, Bisciotti, O'Brien, Mayfield and Watt spoke up so forcefully and so eloquently.

"If I lose fans, that's okay," Mayfield posted on Instagram. "Everybody so upset about my comment doesn't understand the reasoning behind kneeling in the first place. Nate (Boyer, a former NFL player and Green Beret) and Kap came to an agreement that kneeling was the most respectful way to support our military while also standing up for equality. I have the utmost respect for our military, cops and people that serve our country. It's about equality and everybody being treated the same because we're all human. It's been ignored for too long and that is my fault as well for not becoming more educated and staying silent."

Even college athletes have become emboldened to speak out for social justice. The latest was Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, who took on his coach, Mike Gundy, on Monday after Gundy was pictured on a fishing trip wearing an OAN shirt. OAN stands for One America News, a far-right, pro-Trump cable channel.

"I will not stand for this," Hubbard wrote on Twitter. "This is completely insensitive to everything going on in society, and it's unacceptable. I will not be doing anything at Oklahoma State until things CHANGE."

Hubbard, the leading rusher in college football last season, is considered among the favorites for the Heisman Trophy this season. His stance is significant. Gundy apologized and met with his players.

We have seen the change that Hubbard referenced in baby steps.

NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its races. The U.S. Soccer Federation said its policy requiring players to stand during the national anthem "was wrong and detracted from the important message of Black Lives Matter." Confederate statues have been removed in a number of Southern cities. Clemson, at the urging of former players and current NFL stars Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, renamed its Honors College, which had been named after a slave owner.

"Our Trustees' leadership today sends a clear message that Clemson University intends to be a place where all our students, employees and guests feel welcome," Clemson president Jim Clements said. "Our work in this area is far from finished, but we are committed to building on the progress we have made in the areas of diversity and inclusivity as we strive to serve our entire state and nation."

New Orleans Saints cornerback Malcolm Jenkins will continue the fight for social justice as a regular contributor on CNN. He is co-founder of the Players Coalition, which pushes for racial equality. Good for him ignoring the many who have told him to "stick to football."

"I want to thank CNN for their thoughtful leadership in viewing professional athletes beyond their sport as another educated voice who brings a varied perspective and value," Jenkins said in a statement Monday before pledging to "not make the grave mistake of allowing the world to go back to sleep" after so much support for change has been generated by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.

"The groundswell of energy that has been injected into all of us must continue when the protests stop and that includes responsible reporting. Now, more than ever, the public needs to be educated on the roles of elected positions of power, such as the district attorney, the police chief or city council and how to hold those individuals accountable, especially through their voice and their vote."

Clements, the Clemson president, was right.

The work to make America a better place to live for all Americans has only just begun.

It's encouraging to know the sports world will continue to do its part.

Ron Cook is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at rcook@post-gazette.com.