The following was written by former UGA Football Student-Athlete, Matthew Stafford, for the Player’s Tribune. To view the original article, click here.
Listen, I love the game of football.
I love it.
But there are some things that are way more important than football right now.
Yes, this NFL season just kicked off, and nobody is more excited about that than me. But we can’t just move on from the issue of racial injustice and use sports as a distraction.
We can’t just stick to football. Not as a team. Not as an organization. And we shouldn’t as a country.
My proudest day as a Detroit Lion was the afternoon that we came together as a team and decided that we were going to cancel our practice in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting. We had some extremely difficult conversations. We shared stories. We debated. We cried. We were vulnerable. We were uncomfortable. We were angry. We were everything. We can’t just stick to football. Not as a team. Not as an organization. And we shouldn’t as a country.
But we went through it all as a team.
As most everyone knows, I haven’t exactly embraced social media over the years. It’s just not me. But I feel like it’s right to take the time to say what’s on my heart as we begin this new season together as a team. And what’s on my heart is that we all need to come together as a country and admit what we know is real. Deep down inside, no matter what political party we support, or what we do for a living, we know what’s real.
Police brutality, white privilege, racism — it’s all real.
It’s time we stop pretending, or defending, or just closing our eyes to what’s right in front of us. We have to listen, and we have to keep having these hard conversations.
Detroit Lions/AP Images
And it’s not like this is just our history. This is right now.
These are not political problems. These are human problems. It should not be seen as a political statement to discuss this stuff honestly. And I’m sure there are people out there who simply don’t want to hear it. But let me just tell you a quick story.
Shortly after George Floyd was killed, I was down in Atlanta doing my off-season workouts. It was obviously complicated because of COVID, so I had arranged to use a field where I could do some work with my receivers. The first one who could make it to Atlanta was Danny Amendola.
Danny and I spent four days working out together. No problems at all. It was great. A week later, I went to do the same thing, at the same field, with four of my black teammates. We were just starting to dump all the footballs out on the field and some of the guys were still stretching when a gentleman came out and told us that we were trespassing — and to leave immediately.
We didn’t even have our cleats on yet. I remember I was standing there in my socks, just kind of stunned and confused, like, What?
But he didn’t even want to listen.
We were still gathering up the footballs and trying to figure out another spot where we might be able to go when the gentleman pulled out his cellphone.
He said, “I’m calling the police.”
After everything that we’ve witnessed over the last few months, and how situations can escalate for no reason at all … and here the police are being called.
We were there for maybe 10 minutes total. Nobody said a bad word to him. And he still called the police and told them that we were being “uncooperative” and “not leaving the property.”
Obviously, we got out of there immediately. It should not be seen as a political statement to discuss this stuff honestly.
I was embarrassed to have put my teammates in that situation, especially when I was told that it was cool to use the field. Especially when I had been on the same field with Danny with no problems.
The only difference is what we all know in our hearts. Danny and I are white. We don’t get the cops called on us in those situations. We don’t immediately get called uncooperative. And if even if Danny and I somehow did get the cops called on us, we all know how that interaction would’ve gone.
“Hey, what are you doing here? O.K, well, move along now. Have a good day.”
It’s just a different dynamic. It’s just the reality of this country, and it’s O.K. to talk about it. Situations that I take for granted are different for my black teammates, and I am learning just how deep that goes every single day.
After the Jacob Blake incident happened, our team came together and guys shared some very emotional and raw stories of their own experiences. The level of trauma that guys and their families were feeling — I mean really feeling — was just so deep. Multiple guys were saying how whenever they would leave their house to go to the facility, their parents were begging them to text them as soon as they arrived and as soon as they got home. Just to know that they were safe. That’s the level of trauma that you feel as a parent when you see these videos and you instantly think, That could be my child.
Detroit Lions/AP Images
But the one story that stuck with me so much was when Trey Flowers talked about how he copes with the anxiety of dealing with the police. Trey was explaining that if he were to ever get pulled over in his car — something that I have experienced many times without even thinking twice about it — he would roll down his window, put both hands on the wheel, and ask the officer if he would like him to step out of the car so he can handcuff him.
Just so that he is not seen as a threat.
Just so the officer can’t say, “Oh, he was reaching here, he was reaching there.…”
Just so he makes it back home.
If you’re a white person, all I’m asking you to do is to really think about that. Imagine that being your first instinct when you see police lights in your rearview mirror.
No one in America should have to feel this way. He would roll down his window, put both hands on the wheel, and ask the officer if he would like him to step out of the car so he can handcuff him. Just so that he is not seen as a threat.
Listen, I’m not some perfect person. I’m not trying to lecture anybody. I’ve made a million mistakes. I grew up in Highland Park, Texas, which is probably one of the most privileged places in the country. It’s a place that I still love very much, but it’s a bubble. That’s just a fact. I was not exposed to a lot of diversity or different ideas growing up. I was not educated on these issues, and I probably said a bunch of stupid things when I was young that I regret. But a big part of life is about looking inside yourself and trying to evolve as a person.
And when you hear your teammates telling these stories — and getting so emotional that they’re breaking down crying — you can’t just sit there and be silent. These were the same guys who had supported me last off-season during the darkest months of my life, when my wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s still very hard for me to talk about, honestly. But I will just say that when you’re going through hell like that, and you’re still trying to be the quarterback of an NFL team and a guy who people can rely on, you absolutely can’t do it alone. I would come into the facility at five in the morning and try to get my work in, and then I’d leave to go be with my wife just as guys were coming in for meetings.
I remember passing my teammates in the hallway on my way out to the car, and they never once looked at me like I was letting them down. It was always, “We got you. Is there anything we can do to help? Is there anything you need? We’re praying for you.”
This is what it means to be a part of a brotherhood. You have your brother’s back when they’re in pain. You listen to them. You try to help.
I wish that we could do that as a country.
Detroit Lions/AP Images
There are still people, as sad as it is to say, who are simply not listening.
After we canceled our practice, I received text messages that made me realize just how far we have to go in this conversation, and how people just assume I feel a certain way about all of this.
Things like, “Sorry you had to miss practice, or, “Sorry you have to deal with this stuff, man.”
The fact that anyone would feel sorry for me, or be thinking about a football practice at a time like that, really speaks volumes. There are still people in this country who just want sports to be a distraction, and that’s their right. But I beg to differ.
I was drafted by the Lions in 2009, when the city was struggling due to the economic crisis. The city was bankrupt and they couldn’t even afford to tear down the abandoned buildings all over downtown. Then you see how many of Detroit’s public schools have been shut down over the last 15 years, and the unbelievable amount of rec centers that have closed, especially in low-income neighborhoods. A lot of people growing up in those communities have only known inequality and struggle for their whole lives.
Michigan has been home to me and my family for a long time now. People have welcomed us with open arms, and we’ve always embraced that love. I visit schools from time to time where maybe kids don’t have access to Wi-Fi or even to a computer nearby, and you just want people to have a chance. But the thing is, you wouldn’t know the hardship they’re experiencing based on some of the smiles on these kids’ faces. And just their attitude toward life — despite what their families are going through. And now, after all these years of economic hardship, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and these same kids have been in lockdown for months, where they have been exposed to video after video of people who look just like them having these incidents with police. There are still people in this country who just want sports to be a distraction, and that’s their right. But I beg to differ.
I didn’t grow up like that. I didn’t have to deal with anything remotely close to what those kids have to deal with. And if you grew up the way I did, and you still happen to live in one of those bubbles where you don’t have to worry about these things, maybe you’re tired of hearing about all this. Maybe you want to pretend it doesn’t exist, because you don’t see it with your own eyes. Maybe you just want us to “shut up and play football.”
That’s your right. I probably can’t change your mind.
All I can ask you to do, as we continue through this NFL season, is to close your eyes and really put yourself in other people’s shoes. Try for a minute to put all the social media and the politics and the arguing aside, and look within yourself.
Ask yourself hard questions.
But more than anything, listen.