Ann Arbor — Athletes have every right to protest and it can have a positive result, but they also need to mount remedial actions to address their concerns, leaders in sport said Tuesday during a conversation about sport and social policy at the Gerald R. Ford School for Public Policy, at Michigan.
Meanwhile, sport has a mixed record when it comes to furthering social change, they said.
Paul Tagliabue, retired NFL commissioner, Jim Hackett, former interim athletics director at Michigan who is now the chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Co., and Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel took the stage at Rackham Auditorium to discuss how society and sport interact, at a time of political protest in the NFL and other sports leagues, as well as in the NCAA and even in high school sport.
Tagliabue talked about players like Jerome Bettis, a native of Detroit, who has mounted entrepreneurial efforts since he retired, and Warrick Dunn, a former NFL running back whose mother, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.
Tagliabue said Dunn has financed more than 150 homes for surviving families of police officers.
“That’s the kind of people we are dealing with,” Tagliabue said. “They know what’s going on in their communities.
“Part of my problem with the criticism that’s been leveled at the players is because for so many years I used to hear: ‘These guys are nothing but dumb jocks. All they do is play football and make a lot of money,’ ” Tagliabue said. “And they get criticized for not being engaged in societal issues.
“Now, they’re engaged in societal issues and all of a sudden people say, shut up. And it’s on societal issues that they know a lot about because they’ve been there, in those communities.
“Well, I think you’ve got to fight,” said Tagliabue, a lawyer and vice-chairman of the board of directors of Georgetown University. “But you have to do it in the right way. I think it takes a lot of nuance and a lot of thought about what’s appropriate and what is not appropriate.
“The tempting thing to do is to take the biggest, widest platform that you can possibly have and use it.
“It’s not always the right answer.”
As the son of sergeant in the U.S. Army, Manuel said that regardless of “how mad I get at this country, I’m not going to take a knee. I can tell you that.”
“I want them to fight,” Manuel said. “But taking a knee is not necessarily a fight.
“It’s a symbol of your frustration and anger, but that’s not the fight.”
He said he advises students and student athletes that they have the right to protest and speak out.
But he tells them they must do more.
“We have to educate people,” he said. “We have to have ideas. We have to have thoughts about how to solve it and resolve the issue.”
Hackett, who led the athletic department at Michigan and selected Jim Harbaugh as head football coach, said he is proud of how Harbaugh evolved in his public position on his former quarterback with the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, protesting on the field during the anthem.
“Jim knows the quality of the person that he is,” Hackett said, of the quarterback idled after his protests. “And I know what kind of patriot Jim is.
“At first, he didn’t like this, right?
“Then, he came back and said, I think Colin deserves the right to express himself.
“Then, when he was asked about some of the conflicts, he said, you know, if you look at the Constitution, this is a basic right,” he said. “So, I don’t have any problem with it, here, as a coach at Michigan.
“But when you hear that,” Hackett said, “what I want you to think about is that here is a man whose intimacy in managing a player, knowing what that players’ life has been like, what he’s dealt with, has a good sense of the pulse of what the team members are going through.
“He said, this is an important thing for my players, right now.”
Hackett and Tagliabue talked about the considerable preparation an athletic career can provide in the society at large, in business and in politics. Lessons in leadership and accountability are provided in athletics, as well as the lessons of team work and establishing what Tagliabue called, “a high tolerance for conflict.”
Tagliabue said teams and leagues are not designed to be “platforms for social change,” and that while society sometimes progresses through its experience with sport, sometimes sport enforces societal ills.
How does one measure what sport contributed to social change considering the first black football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference did not enroll and play until 1966, at Maryland, he asked.
“The starting point is to listen to the players. Don’t start the conversation with them by calling them a son of a bitch,” Tagliabue said, referring to what President Trump called protesting NFL players.
“That’s not going to produce a long conversation with a football player.”