Among the many lessons that we have learned in recent days is the harsh truth that, if it pushes hard enough against the walls, reality can break into any means that we use to escape it. Many, many people turn to sports, for among other reasons, as a retreat from the daily life, but many athletes are saying that is no longer sustainable in this climate.
More and more, athletes are using their platform to speak up about societal issues, with many of them having experienced them firsthand growing up. Racial injustice and police brutality has sparked worldwide protests since the end of May, and has not let up, and it has also served as the spark of many awkward and difficult public and private conversations.
Among the many places in which these conversations are being held are the virtual locker rooms of professional sports teams, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception. Recently, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Conner was asked about how head coach Mike Tomlin has responded in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
“Coach is notorious for that; he’s the ultimate leader, bringing everybody together”, he said on NFL Live for ESPN. “He was really, really hurt by it. He explained to us, as we all know, that this issue has been going on for a while, with his dad, and now he has to explain it to his son. He was really hurt by it. But us and the Steelers, we’re putting together things and we’re going to do our best to make change. But yeah, Coach was hurt by it, but he’s been definitely bringing us together”.
An estimated 70 percent or so of the NFL’s player population is black, and no doubt a large portion of those players grew up having conversations about race and prejudice when they were children and young adults. They’re conversations that continue to take place even into adulthood.
This time, however, the concern has transcended racial barriers, and many prominent white players and coaches have, for example, expressed solidarity with their black brothers, and in their means of speaking out, including political protest, with some like Texans head coach Bill O’Brien and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield explicitly saying that they will kneel this season. When a social media user asked J.J. Watt if he was surely not kneeling, he responded by telling the user not to speak for him.
Kneeling became a major controversy in the NFL in 2017. In part to try to avoid the controversy, Tomlin told his team to work out a unified response, but that pretty well backfired. Many expect that a lot of players will be kneeling this year, but Conner said the Steelers have not really discussed that.
“Kneeling, not as much I believe”, he said when asked if they have had that conversation. “We’re trying to handle our business as well, but, we haven’t talked about that just yet”.
Of course, no games are scheduled to be played until August 6 at the earliest, so there is plenty of time for discussion.