Atlanta Falcons stand arm-and-arm during the national anthem before the first half of an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Photo: John Bazemore/AP
Photo: John Bazemore/AP

Falcons held discussion on race and societal matters in wake of protest

The Falcons, along with owner Arthur Blank, met with an expert on the matter, Andrew Mac Intosh, national director, of leadership and education programs for the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) on Monday before the players left for their bye week. 

All of the Falcons stood and most interlocked arms during the national anthem before playing the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

Seven players -- long snapper Josh Harris, punter Matt Bosher, kicker Matt Bryant, center Alex Mack, fullback Derrick Coleman, tackle Jake Matthews and left guard Andy Levitre -- stood off to the left end of the line and did not lock arms. Levitre stood with hand over his chest.

Six players from Buffalo, including running back Mike Tolbert of Douglasville, kneeled during the national anthem. Defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, wide receiver Kaelin Clay, cornerback Shareece Wright, running back Taiwan Jones and defensive tackle Cedric Thornton also knelt. Running back Leonard Johnson stood with those players who kneeled for Buffalo. 

Players around the NFL have been kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial injustices. The protests were started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. 

“We thought it would be important to really take our time on a topic that was so important and not go quickly through it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “So, we actually brought in someone to help moderate that from Rise to help with the discussions, how do we get progress from protest over towards progress, and the real genesis of this came from the team because they wanted to do some things together that moving forward how could we make a difference.”

Before the Detroit game and after the off color comments of the president calling NFL players who kneeled “sons of bithces,” defensive tackles Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett knelt during the national anthem. 

“They all recognized they have a platform as players, so how can they help,” Quinn said. “We know it’s not something that’s going to be solved in one time or one event, but a way to kick it off as a group.

The Falcons wanted to get their thoughts organized and formulate a plan of action possibly through education and community events designed to make a difference.

Quinn felt the meeting went well.

“We dedicated some time to that while we had it,” Quinn said. “(We) talked about these topics that are very important right now.”

With the players coming from so many different backgrounds, that is part of the beauty of sports when they band together for the common good of the team. The Falcons call their bond, the Brotherhood, while acknowledging some of the real world problems. 

“We have to open up and talk about it with one another, it can make a real difference,” Quinn said. “So, having that trust amongst teammates to talk about some of the things that affected you, whether it was growing up or how you got to this spot, and having that kind of trust teammate to teammate and showing some of that vulnerability, I think is important.”

After his first season with the Falcons, Quinn was appalled that some of the players didn’t have each other’s phone numbers. They tended to mix together by position group. The wide receivers went their way, the tight ends went another. 

Before the 2016 season, Quinn re-modeled the locker room and broke up the positional cliques. Devonta Freeman got a kick being next to Julio Jones and so on. 

As the Falcons marched to Super Bowl LI, they regularly cited the closeness of the team as one of the intangible reasons for their success.

“The guys are really close, so now to share some stories about their past and why it’s so different (was important),” Quinn said. “I’d use the analogy last week of Matt Ryan growing up in West Chester, Pa. (Suburban Philadelphia) and Devonta Freeman in Liberty City (Inner city Miami), they didn’t grow up on the same block,” Quinn said. “So, we wouldn’t understand. So, having that type of trust to share some of our experiences was an important one, so that was part of the discussion.”

Also, the discussion was to get a better understanding of the issues. 

“If we’re going to understand what some of the issues are, then we can go make a difference on some of those,” Quinn said. “It was productive for sure and one that went for a while just because it was such an important topic and guys have different views on it. We were glad we did it, and we think it’s just the beginning of ways for guys to make change.”

Blank hoped the players will be intellectually stimulated to move “from protest to progress” with the open discussion on race relations and other related matters.

“I lived in a diverse community: Queens, New York, and I went to public schools my whole life,” Blank told the AJC’s Jeff Schultz. “But having said that, I’m white, I’m not African-American, so I don’t share that history organically. But in terms of my values and principles I do, and I think you know that.”

RISE was started in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Ross, like Blank, is a white Jewish man in his late 70s. But he’s a native of Detroit, where he witnessed racism up close.

The advisory board includes Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli, who is one of the organization’s most active individuals and has long been moved by various social causes.

“I can’t speak for 2,000 players in the NFL,” Blank said. “But I doubt there’s any that really feel over the long term that being disrespectful to the national anthem or the flag is the right way to make progress. But they want to be heard, and it’s our responsibility to listen and respond as best we can.”

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