Change is happening in the country right now. Sadly, it took this long to get here. Also sadly it took—and continues to take—tragedy for so many to get on board. Lastly, it’s sad that it’s not moving as fast as it should. But change is happening.
One of the biggest places you see change happening is in sports. NASCAR has changed so much in the last few weeks including having a race car adorned with the Black Lives Matter logo, banning the confederate flag and uniting to push Black driver Bubba Wallace’s car onto the track. Many NBA players and coaches have taken part in the demonstrations that have occurred all around the country over the last month, and they’re not alone, as many athletes from all sports have joined as well.
Perhaps the biggest surprise comes from the NFL. While incredibly late to the party, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have changed their stance on peaceful protests against police brutality against Black Americans. Even after they’ve blackballed a Black American, Colin Kaepernick, for four years and counting over his peaceful protest.
It appears to be finally clear to the league that kneeling was never about disrespecting the troops or the American flag, even though that was something that was said millions of times, especially by Kaepernick himself, and was understood by millions of people. Sure, the league never actually said that’s why they were against it, but their statement admitting “they were wrong to not listen” certainly points to that.
It’s a new world for sports. Athletes can now use their giant platform to spark change without having to fear retribution or criticism from team owners and the league, especially after the league imposed fines for players and teams that knelt during the anthem for a short time in 2018. I hope this is something that spans the entire season and not just a one-time thing where the league allows teams to do it to stand up to a President who called them “sons of bitches” for standing up for an oppressed group of people whose voices are so often unheard.
On Tuesday, the Detroit Lions went through a major shift at the very top of their organization when Martha Ford stepped down from her ownership role and passed the torch to her daughter Sheila Ford Hamp. It was a move that was a long time coming and one that many expected to happen sooner rather than later.
Right off the bat, Ford Hamp fielded questions from the media about players protesting and Colin Kaepernick. The way she answered those questions was a breath of fresh air in a city where other sports team owners have been quiet or hypocritical on the subject. The Red Wings, for example, put out a statement saying “We stand for equality, justice and respect for all. We believe in diversity and inclusion and condemn hatred, racism, prejudice and violence,” but literally the next day, Little Caesar Arena—managed by Ilitch Holdings (who owns the Wings)—served as a station for temporarily holding and processing for arrested demonstrators during the George Floyd protests in downtown Detroit.
When first asked about signing Colin Kaepernick, Ford Hamp said, “Well, if our coaches and the general manager all thought it was a good idea to bring him in, I would completely support it.”
Ultimately, with the signing of Chase Daniel, the likelihood of the Lions bringing in Colin Kaepernick is extremely small. It’s a shame, though. In November, I wrote that the Lions would be the perfect fit for Kapernick, and I still believe that to be true today.
But it was nice to see a team owner definitively support the signing of Kaepernick rather than dance around the topic without ever truly committing to an answer. However, it was Ford Hamp’s thoughts on her players peacefully protesting that really impressed me.
“First of all, I think the understanding is completely different now,” Ford Hamp said. “I think most people really understand what the kneeling was really all about. I know the commissioner has said, and I completely agree, that we support our players’ right to peaceful protests. We support the First Amendment. I think this has finally, finally, thank goodness, gotten national attention that this is a serious problem. We, as an organization, plan to listen to our players and support them any way we can.“
This is the right thing to say, and it’s one way of showing how different Ford Hamp is from her mother. In 2017, after Donald Trump went after NFL players for protesting, the Lions were one of the teams protested the comment that Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Martha Ford joined the players for that very protest. But then she undermined the message when, a week later, she asked the players not to protest. Sure, she offered a donation to several social initiatives in exchange for them not kneeling, but whether she meant to or not, she silenced players on a cause that was important.
But we can see clear as day what her daughter’s opinion is. That’s the type of leadership a team needs from the very top. These players need to know that they’re not a dollar sign. They’re not just a name on a piece of paper that could just go away someday. They need to know that their concerns are important and their beliefs, whatever they may be, are being heard.
We will see as time goes on how true to her word Ford Hamp is. The last time teams let their players demonstrate without retribution or criticism, it was a one-time deal and the NFL and its commissioner apparently didn’t know what they were standing up for until now, as again, his statement would have you believe.
There has to be a small concern that she may being saying the right thing out of fear of what would happen if she said the wrong thing. That’s something that’ll likely be tested right away. If we indeed get a football season this year, I expect players from all over the league, including Detroit of course, to peacefully demonstrate all season long.
How Lions ownership reacts then will tell an even deeper story. But for right now, you should feel some pride for your football team and its owner taking all the right stands this offseason.