NFL Teams
Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Staff Writer 295d

From 1960s riots to today's NFL protests, Cardinals recognize value in their voices

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has a unique perspective on the protests happening at NFL stadiums.

Arians, 64, remembers watching the riots of 1968, 1969 and 1970, but not fully understanding at the time what, exactly, was going on. That came to him later. He's not only part of a generation that grew up in the midst of civil rights movements, he made his own mark on it.

He and James Barber, the father to former NFL players Ronde and Tiki, were the first interracial roommates at Virginia Tech. Then Arians, who grew up in York, Pennsylvania, said he saw the country from another perspective when he coached in Alabama and Mississippi, "where it was totally different."

What Arians is witnessing now is similar to what he saw in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's actually evolved back," Arians said. "I grew up with [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos at the Olympics, and that was my era. Vietnam. We don't have anything near the Vietnam protests now that we had back then.

"Hopefully kids aren't going to get shot on campus by the National Guard. So, yeah, I've seen it come full circle. Social awareness is always a problem. We just have to keep hitting it, but there's no place for racism and hatred in this country."

What the world has today, four decades later, isn't much different. Racism is still prevalent. Violence against minorities still exists. Social injustice runs rampant. But how those affected -- and those who can create change -- spread their word and their message has changed drastically from Arians' youth.

Arians was shoulder-to-shoulder, arms linked with his players, coaches, staff and front office Monday night when the Cardinals stood along one of the goal lines at University of Phoenix Stadium before their game against the Dallas Cowboys. Together they demonstrated a show of unity as a response to President Donald Trump's comments Friday that NFL owners should respond to players who protest social and racial injustices during the national anthem by saying, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He's fired. He's fired."

It was the culmination of a powerful weekend of protests and demonstrations at NFL stadiums across the country, when the nation saw players use their platform to stand up against the president's words, following former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's initial protest when he knelt for the national anthem a year ago.

"I think things have heated up more so," Cardinals defensive tackle Frostee Rucker said. "The continued dialogue on it keeps it going around. Unfortunately, you don't want to just stop talking about it because it is real issues but at the same time, it's like we want to focus on winning the game and not let this be the reason you talk to us."

Professional athletes have long had a unique platform to express their views, take on causes or help enact change. They're beloved by some, idolized by others and listened to by many. When they talk, people listen. But that platform, while still wildly effective, has changed. Athletes no longer need a newspaper or a newscast to get their feelings and opinions out.

With the widespread growth of social media, they can do it themselves.

"I think guys should, in fact, exercise their right to speak up more," Rucker said. "For some, in our sport, it's more 'Stay in your lane, don't be a distraction, just focus on football,' because we only have 16 weeks. Other [sports], baseball, if they want to say something, or basketball, it's not much of a distraction because they've got so many more games.

"After a week or two, the buzz is gone about that and it's more about the sport. A week or two or three is a quarter of our season. It's tough. But I think guys should say more about things they have interest in."

Over the past couple of months, there have been countless examples of how athletes used their fame and name, such as Houston Texans linebacker J.J. Watt raising $37 million to help victims of Hurricane Harvey and Rucker using his social media accounts to share information about the American Diabetes Association.

Neither Arians nor Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald think professional athletes must use their platform to help in times of need. Their charity and their involvement need to come from the heart, Arians said. And if an athlete isn't among the top paid in their sport, just offering their voice and their presence can make a difference, too, Arians added.

However, if professional athletes don't use their status for good, Fitzgerald believes that they still should be socially aware.

"You can't just live in your little bubble," he said. "You got to understand what real life is like. You got to understand what the plight of everybody around you is. I think socially aware is something you should be but I wouldn't say all athletes have to do it.

"But for me, I think it's important."

Rucker believes players around the NFL "can't lose sight that we're human." That means they have interests and opinions, too.

"We can take to our social medias and stuff like that to say whatever we want and you just have to be conscious of what can come after it," he said. "And that has other things to do with not just social injustices, but anything."

Retired Pro Bowl linebacker Seth Joyner feels that if athletes use their platforms to amplify their voices and opinions on causes of social justice, then "it's advantageous for people to step up in these circumstances, 100 percent."

While the past year has seen an increase in the number of athletes who have used their platform to share their opinions on social issues, there were years, Joyner said, when athletes didn't speak up at all -- it didn't matter for what.

And people were looking.

Joyner was a rookie in 1986 and played 13 years for four teams. By the time he got to the NFL, athletes were, for the most part, quiet.

"I think we were kind of in a transition," he said. "You had the '60s and '70s, when players were speaking out about civil rights and the ability to be equal, to be able to perform in the game and earn in the game like their counterparts. And then you had a little bit of a lull, in my opinion, from the '80s to the present time, when even the media wondered out loud, 'Where are all the voices for social change?'"

That has changed, and recently because of Kaepernick, Joyner said.

But Joyner looked at that nearly 30-year stretch as a missed opportunity for athletes to get involved.

"I think social injustice has been a part of our fabric of our history in the United States for a long time," Joyner said. "I think you go through times, I think you go through lulls, where it's really prominent and you go through times where it's not so prominent.

"I think that we're at a point in time now where you look at what happened with Colin Kaepernick and his thing, and no matter what you believe or what you think about our president, there is that effect that factors into it. Then you throw the Charlottesville piece of it right on top of it and you got this perfect storm of issues that are occurring that requires the professional athletes, actors and actresses use their voices for social change. It's their responsibility. It's all of our responsibility to step up and voice something when we see an injustice taking place."

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