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Sticking to sports? Won't happen for some Lions on social issues

Ameer Abdullah says that seeing LeBron James have a voice has inspired him to be outspoken when he sees things that are wrong. Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Ameer Abdullah has no interest in sticking to sports. He knows some people will take offense to that. He gets it. He does. He's an athlete. People are interested in his opinion, partially, because he's a Detroit Lions running back. He knows others look to him as a role model, and while he's a professional athlete, he has a platform that can help others.

It's why he'll speak candidly about racial issues and what he sees as the overarching problems in the country in the days after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent Saturday and was linked to at least three deaths.

He doesn't want to stand by and watch. He has no plans to.

"I don't know where this preconceived notion that athletes can't have a voice came from, but it's there now," Abdullah said. "Having guys like LeBron [James] definitely come out to say something, he's been very vocal about a lot of things going on in society.

"It helps someone like myself become more comfortable voicing not necessarily my opinions, but what's right and what's wrong."

Abdullah doesn't agree that people don't want to hear athletes' opinions. He understands not everyone will root for him because of this. Not everyone will like him. He's OK with that, leaning on lessons his father taught him as a child in Birmingham, Alabama.

"Definitely, if someone doesn't like me about my stance on the situation, especially when it comes down to racial issues, then I really don't want that guy to root for me anyway," Abdullah said. "So that's something that my dad kind of taught me: Not everyone is going to like you, but stand for something or you're going to fall for anything."

It's something Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he tells his players, too. They are members of society. He has no problem with them voicing their opinions. His players have a history of that, from Reggie Bush speaking out about Ferguson, Missouri, to DeAndre Levy's social activism. And they are citizens, too, who can influence others.

"We all live in this community, too," Caldwell said. "We have other lives. We have children. We have families. We have cousins. We have mothers and fathers. So we're just like anyone else."

Caldwell, who grew up during the civil rights movement, called what happened in Charlottesville "disappointing."

Earlier this summer, he took two of his grandchildren to the Civil Rights Trail in Georgia. At one exhibit, the Caldwells put on headphones at a lunch counter to experience a simulation of what was yelled at black people there in the 1960s. His grandson, Trey, could handle it only briefly.

"Trey put his hands on it, and he took them off after about a couple minutes or so and he said, 'Papa Coach, that's scary,'" Caldwell said. "So we thought it might be something educational for him to see what went on back then. For us, growing up in the '60s, obviously those things were part of our daily life in terms of what we witnessed on television, etcetera. So it was probably good for him to just get a sense of it, not realizing that within his lifetime, he's going to see some of the same things on television again, and that's disappointing, you know.

"But I do think that the world could take a lot from what we do in sports. It's a highly diverse community. Guys get along. They are from all walks of life. And there's no place in this game for bigotry and hatred, and I think it's the same way in society. But it's there. I think it's something that we all have to speak out against and not tolerate."

Abdullah looks at his mother's influence -- he said she committed her life to charity -- as part of the reason he wants to speak out and try to help bring communities together and educate people. It's also why, when he watched coverage of the Charlottesville protests and the Vice documentary that went inside Charlottesville with the white supremacist protestors, he had a "great distaste for it."

"It's blatant, and at least I can say this, at least the guy in the video isn't hiding. You have a lot of people who will do something like Charlottesville and then hide their hands. When people are calling for them to be handled justly, they are hiding," Abdullah said. "At least that guy came out and said it. We know what the issue is, but taking that issue, I just feel like a lot of people are making excuses about it.

"I'm like, 'Hey, man, this dude is giving you the proof in the pudding right here. On camera.' Still is, 'but this, but that.' I don't understand the 'althoughs' and the 'buts.' I don't understand that."

Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead said that he raises his children to not look at the color of someone's skin and that he's now comfortable "speaking my piece on the fact that something needs to change." Until it does, Whitehead said, he doesn't believe the country will be able to progress.

It's why he's been vocal on social media and why he finds it odd when people call him out for posting opinions about police brutality or "unjust actions by law enforcement against minorities." He doesn't understand why people want him to be silent just because he's an athlete.

"It's like, 'What are you talking about?' Just because I'm an athlete doesn't mean anything," Whitehead said. "Doesn't mean that I can't speak on topics that are going on in this country. It doesn't mean that I'm not affected by this, because I have sons. I have younger siblings and everything that are still growing up around this stuff, and I don't want to see them harmed by law enforcement or some white supremacists just off the simple fact because they're black.

"That's why I'm going to speak out on things that I believe that's wrong, and will continue to do so until it changes."