Niyo: It isn’t easy for NFL players to take a stand

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Wide receiver Golden Tate admires how former teammate Anquan Boldin wasn’t shy when it came to speaking his mind on matters of social justice.

Allen Park — This is the other danger hidden in the game they love, beyond the brain injuries they endure and the pain medication they ingest, beyond the risks they take now and the unknown consequences they’ll face later.

And it’s one that some of the Lions were discussing again Monday, as they reacted to the news a former teammate and one of the NFL’s most respected players, Anquan Boldin, had announced his retirement over the weekend.

Two weeks after signing as a free agent with the Bills, Boldin, a 14-year veteran who spent last season in Detroit proving he still had plenty left to give, decided to give it all up. And the reasons he gave, citing the civil unrest in this country and his commitment to social activism, were not the kind we’re used to getting.

“It wasn’t a decision that I made all of the sudden,” Boldin explained Monday in an interview with Sirius XM Radio, specifically referencing the racial tensions that broke violently in Charlottesville, Va., a week earlier. “It was something that I had been dealing with for a couple years. I always felt like football would be my passion, football would get me past a lot of things. … But just seeing things that transpired over the last week or so, I mean, I think for me, there’s something bigger than football at this point.

“It’s kind of shocking for me to say that because football is something that I’ve dedicated my life to … and I never thought anything would take the place of that passion. But for me it has.”

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For those who knew him well — from Jim Caldwell, who won a Super Bowl with Boldin in Baltimore and coached him again in Detroit, to some of his Lions teammates, players like Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi who’d joined him in speaking up and speaking out on issues of race and inequality — this really wasn’t a complete shock.

“He’s one of those guys,” Caldwell noted, “when you talk about guys that take action and make a difference in your community, he doesn’t just showboat. He’s focused in on trying to find ways to make a positive change.”

Among them: a $1 million scholarship endowment to aid underprivileged kids, years of humanitarian work in Africa, summer programs back home in Pahokee, Fla., and trips to Capitol Hill to speak to lawmakers about criminal justice reform.

All of which is why Boldin was honored as the NFL’s “Man of the Year” in 2015. And it’s why in just a short time here in Detroit he made such a lasting impression. Fellow receiver Golden Tate raved about Boldin’s toughness Monday, and the dedication he showed on and off the field.

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Things outside the game

But as he told stories about Boldin mentoring rookies or playing with broken and bloodied hands, he also talked about him not being afraid of taking a bold stand. And for his career to end now, for it to end with a statement like this, Tate said, “I think it says a lot about his character.”


“This game is important to him, he loves it, and I’m sure it’s probably tough for him to walk away,” Tate added of Boldin, who ranks ninth on the NFL’s all-time receptions list. “But he feels like his calling is to help America make strides.”

And maybe this is the part that should have us all feeling more conflicted. The fact that it’s so hard to do both for a professional athlete. That it’s so awkward to even try. That players wanting to make strides, people wanting to step forward, feel they have to step so gingerly, or even step away.

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling on the sideline during the national anthem last season. He is currently a free agent.

Like many, Tate points to Colin Kaepernick, whose anthem protests and provocative comments about police brutality clearly have a played a part in his inability to land a job as an NFL quarterback. As Quin noted last week, “Sometimes you feel like you have to make a choice: Do I speak out and say what’s right or do I hide from the truth to save my career?” Or as Titans receiver Rishard Matthews, one of Kaepernick’s college teammates, told ESPN, “It’s not a secret that guys who protest on teams might be gone.”

But it goes further than that, said Tate who, like many, was dismayed by what he saw and heard coming out of Charlottesville, first the hatred displayed by neo-Nazis and later the equivocating statements by President Donald Trump, among others.

“As a black man in America, I don’t really see too much changing,” he said. “It’s no secret, injustices are happening right now — and happening way too often. We need to find a way to fix this. And the answer is really easy. We all know the answer: It’s to love each other.”

But just as knowing and doing are two different things, so are feeling and saying, or thinking and speaking. And that’s where this gets tricky: Where to draw the line?

Signs of unity

Throughout U.S. history, sports have provided a progressive platform, used to great effect by the likes of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King. But the “stick to sports” sentiment is still pervasive, and powerful, particularly in the image-conscious NFL, where players are constantly reminded about the bottom line and frequently urged to toe the conservative, corporate party line.

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That’s why it was encouraging this past week to see some of the protests evolve, and cross another line.

In Philadelphia, it was a white player, defensive end Chris Long, who grew up in Charlottesville, keeping his hand on the back of Malcolm Jenkins, who had his fist raised while the national anthem played before a preseason game. (“I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be there for people that are fighting for equality,” Long said.) Ditto the show of racial unity in Oakland, where the Raiders’ two stars made a point of standing together for the anthem, with David Carr putting his hand on Khalil Mack’s shoulder.

Still, words and deeds don’t always go unpunished, and that’s probably why Carr was quick to note afterward, “We’re not protesting, you know — we’re not doing anything like that.” And it’s why, in this age of aggregation where social-media mobs threaten to blind side anyone with an opinion, Tate says conscience often loses out to calculation.

“I think that thought scares some people,” he said. “You’ve got to be very delicate with what you say, to make sure people don’t misinterpret what you’re saying, although it’s damn near impossible sometimes. Because instead of understanding the message, people are quick to grab the negative and overlook the positive. And once that negative perception is out, so many people pick it up and run with it that you can’t clear it up. You’ve got to be careful, man.

“And it’s tough, because we want to use our voice to make an impact. I know a lot of guys with character in this locker room or throughout this league want to do their part and use their platform to help. You’ve just got to be very, very careful.”