Meeting on social issues a 'huge' step for Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It was a small step, but one the Atlanta Falcons felt was important in today's contentious climate.

Coach Dan Quinn and his players gathered in the team meeting room Monday to discuss various social issues, topics that have become a hot button in the NFL and the nation as a whole, following Colin Kaepernick's stance against racial injustice. Tensions heightened after President Donald Trump's critical comments regarding players who demonstrate against injustices during the national anthem.

Monday's discussion, also attended by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, was moderated by Andrew MacIntosh of Ross Initiative in Sports Equality, an organization founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross with a mission of using sports to improve race relations and drive social progress. RISE has met with rookies from all 32 NFL teams regarding those topics, and the Falcons' forum evolved from the rookie session.

"It was huge," receiver/kick returner Andre Roberts said. "I think it's best for football teams -- or it's easier for football teams -- to be understanding of those talks because we are so diverse. In most team sports, you have a lot of diversity. We all come together for one goal in our sport to help us all work together. We all start to understand that at a young age."

Added defensive end Brooks Reed, "Yes, it was helpful, just to get everything on the table and talk about the issues at hand. ... I supported my teammates and their stances. I just want to be there for them."

Quinn arranged for MacIntosh to speak with the team after the Falcons promoted unity by locking arms during the national anthem in Detroit before playing the Lions on Sept. 24. Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe took a knee, a reaction to Trump's critical remarks: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a b---- off the field right now. Out. He's fired! He's fired!'"

Quinn talked to Jarrett and Poe individually, and the team collectively decided to stand during the anthem with arms locked and not take a knee last week at home. Quinn, who always stresses a strong "brotherhood," felt it necessary to keep the conversation going regarding the issues that have led to leaguewide protests and unrest around the nation.

"We thought it would be important to really take our time on a topic that was so important," 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? And they all recognized they have a platform as players, so how can they help?

"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 ... and that's what [Monday] was about: Getting our thoughts organized and how we could move forward with some things through education, events and some planning to make a difference."

Jocelyn Benson, CEO of RISE, attended Monday's session and commended the Falcons on their proactive approach. Benson said the Falcons are the first team to get all of their players registered to vote through RISE's program.

"What I hope comes out of it is a game plan for how the team, the owner, the executives, and the players can work together collaboratively to lead, locally and nationally, in raising awareness around injustices, and bringing people together to develop solutions on how to address it," Benson said.

The discussion did not focus on the national anthem and the decisions to sit, kneel or stretch during the anthem.

"I think there is a frustration that the issues of injustice that some players are trying to drive awareness around through the anthem have been left behind in the discussion that has become centered on the symbolic method and choice of action as opposed to the issues themselves," Benson said. "I think it's a result of many things. ... It oversimplifies and distracts from what a lot of players are trying to do, which is use their platform when the camera is on them to point the camera to injustices that they see, that they experience personally, or that their family members experience."

Quinn shared what he believed was the most enlightening aspect of Monday's discussion.

"Just that the backgrounds that we're all from really play an impact on who we are, and when we have the ability to recognize those backgrounds and 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.

"The guys are really close, so now to share some stories about their past and why it's so different -- I used the analogy last week of Matt Ryan growing up in West Chester [Pennsylvania] and Devonta Freeman in Liberty City [Miami]. They didn't grow up on the same block, 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."

Pass-rusher Vic Beasley Jr., speaking at a Nike event earlier this week, talked about what he gained from the discussion.

"The thing I pulled out it was just the importance of equality," Beasley said. "It was something that Martin Luther King stood for. It's something we all try to strive for."

Beasley believes it's important for athletes, particularly the high-profile ones, to express themselves on social issues.

"You look at guys like LeBron James and some of the big faces of the NBA and guys in the NFL that have stood out and said things -- you can tell a lot of people pay attention to those things," Beasley said. "Our voices are heard when we say something.

"Like [teammate Adrian Clayborn] said a while ago, if the world was like our locker room, it would be a much better place. So we just try to make the world a much better place by establishing equality."