How the NFL was sparked to social transformation

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Having spent 50-plus years working to use the power of sports to bring about positive social change, I found Sunday to be the most important sports day since Muhammad Ali declared he would not fight in the Vietnam War. It evoked memories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and Arthur Ashe protesting against apartheid in South Africa. These men are among a handful of former athletes who were able to publicly argue for social justice in spite of how it might affect their careers.

For me, the NFL rose enormously in public stature as soon as commissioner Roger Goodell criticized President Donald Trump for making a "divisive statement" about the NFL and the protests during the national anthem. Trump had, of course, called on owners to fire any "son of a bitch" who knelt during the anthem. At the end of the day of protest on Sunday, Goodell applauded the league and its players for their response.

The day started in London with a game between the Jaguars and Ravens. Jacksonville players locked arms during the anthem, while several knelt with their arms locked. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who donated $1 million to Trump's presidential inauguration, locked arms with his players, acting in unity as the first owner to step forward with his players. He would not be the last that day.

Despite the rancor of the president's speech in Alabama and his tweets last weekend, I believe this unity in thought actually had its genesis not in a reaction to the president, but in the public re-examination of Muhammad Ali's legacy after the passing of the boxing legend slightly over a year ago.

America, including its athletes, watched as 100,000 people poured into the streets of Louisville on the day of Ali's service. Another 16,000 sat for hours, mesmerized, listening to inspirational speeches in the KFC Yum! Center about the life he led. While some may have been there to celebrate Ali's life as a boxer, most were there to thank him for his life of service and the risks he took to make America a better nation. When Ali refused to go to Vietnam in 1967, he did so at the expense of his boxing career. Facing prison and going three years without boxing, no one could have imagined that he could come back to reclaim his title. And even after he did, he continued to take a stand on social justice issues important to his country and his people.

He stood for all people: African-Americans and whites, Muslims and Christians and Jews. All people. Attending the funeral services in Louisville, I was able to witness first-hand the masses of people pouring their hearts out for this once-in-a-lifetime human being. It was sad, but it was also a celebration and an inspiration.

Athletes watched and took note of the public's reaction and learned of all Ali had done in his life through the hours of broadcasts and pages of newspaper coverage.

Then came the ESPY Awards in July 2016, when ESPN gave LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul the platform to address the recent shootings of blacks by white police officers. Communities across the country were facing massive protests. I was moved by their eloquence and courage and grateful that ESPN gave them that enormous platform to express themselves.

I believe that all of that set the stage for then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem as the 2016 NFL season started. As soon as I heard about it, I thought it would likely mean the end of his playing career. That was apparently the case, as no NFL team has signed Kaepernick in 2017. This was a perfect storm coming together, and when President Trump, a person who has made many outrageous statements throughout his campaign and throughout his presidency, insulted the NFL players, the situation only escalated. He has done and said many things as president that I thought I would never hear a president say. His calling for the firing of protesting NFL players by asking NFL owners to get that "son of a bitch" off the field was another thing I thought I would never hear. But there it was -- hardly a presidential way to describe Americans who were using their right of free speech to protest.

The storm broke. Games across the NFL on Sunday held anthem demonstrations with locked arms, kneeling players, and owners and coaches joining the players in a show of unity. Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tennessee players stayed in the locker room during the anthem. The Sparks did the same during the WNBA Finals on Sunday. Oakland A's catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to take a knee during the anthem. The NBA has always supported player activism against racism. Just this weekend, Golden State, the NBA champions, learned that President Trump had rescinded its invitation to the White House after it looked like Steph Curry was joining Kevin Durant in refusing to go.

My hope is that the message of this protest remains clear: It is about the enormous racial injustice in America. We live in a nation where, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, the aggregate wealth of all 42 million African-Americans is less than the aggregate wealth of the 100 people on the Forbes list of the 100 wealthiest Americans. How is that possible in 2017?

The owners play a key role here. Nine NFL owners were significant donors to Trump's campaign; 28 of the 32 owners made statements critical of the president and supportive of the players. In the Monday night game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knelt with his team.

It is my hope that all leagues create community forums in each franchise city with players, police, local officials, civil rights leaders and community leaders to openly discuss the issues and to help us understand each other, as we do not seem to do now. Some NBA teams have done that. We heard the word "unity" this weekend over and over again. Let that be our goal, but it must include facing racism head-on.

Is that too much to ask of sports? It was 70 years ago that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. That was seven years before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schools and more than 15 years before the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

As I said in the beginning, I have spent more than 50 years working to use the power of sports to bring about positive social change. In those 50 years, only a handful of athletes have come forward. Now there is an army of people who are not just being asked about how they played that Sunday or if their team will make it to the Super Bowl. They are being asked about racism and social justice and have been transformed from unidimensional human beings into multidimensional human beings. I promise you that is a good feeling. What we saw Sunday was the beginning of a social transformation in our nation.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.