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Allen Park — The Detroit Lions announced the launch of a new social justice initiative on Monday, backed by $600,000 in initial funding from the team’s players and owner Martha Firestone Ford.

The initiative, called Detroit Lions Inspire Change, is the culmination of more than a year’s worth of planning, which began in late 2017, following massive, league-wide demonstrations in response to president Donald Trump’s harsh criticism directed at players who had taken a knee in protest during the playing of the national anthem.

“Expanding upon our commitment to influencing social justice reform was a primary goal for our organization this season,” Ford said in a statement. “With the support of our players, who over the years have demonstrated a longstanding devotion to serving this community in which they live and work, we have successfully established the foundation of what we expect to be a multi-year platform in Detroit. I am grateful for the players’ participation in these important discussions happening right now in our country.”

The Lions’ initiative will have a three-pronged focus — scholarship funding, social-education programs and medical aid and health assistance. Under those three umbrellas, the team will work with eight organizations in Detroit: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, Detroit Lions Academy, Detroit Justice Center, Covenant House Of Michigan, Detroit Public Schools Foundation’s Water Hydration Station Project, CATCH Charity For Children and Mariners Inn.

“I am extremely proud of our players for their hard work and collaboration all season in bringing this initiative together," Lions coach Matt Patricia said in a statement. "Our locker room is a microcosm of society and the powerful platform with which we are gifted brings a responsibility to make a difference in our communities. Through this initiative, our team has an opportunity to truly make a difference in the City of Detroit.”

The Lions are one of several teams who have recently announced joint partnerships between ownership and players to fund social justice causes. The Chicago Bears announced more than $800,000 in funding in November, with the New York Jets following up with a similar amount last month. In Baltimore, the  Ravens pledged $1.5 million to fund mentor programs and youth coaching in the city.

“Social justice to us means equality amongst all types of people, no matter your race, religion or what you believe in,” Lions linebacker and captain Devon Kennard said in a statement. “There has been a lot of talk about awareness and I think we as NFL players are beyond that now. It’s about action and what we are going to do, and this initiative is the start of something impactful. There is no greater place than our own backyard here in Detroit.”

While NFL teams and players have done work in the community for decades, this recent surge can be tied back to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began to use the national anthem to protest racial inequality and injustices in August 2016.

Kaepernick’s strategy slowly spread and became a hot-button issue for partisan politics. Those who supported the players highlighted racial inequality in society, particularly related to policing and the justice system, while others found the action of kneeling as offensive to the flag and military.

Trump consistently used the protesting players as fodder during his speeches and on social media. That hit a crescendo in September 2017, when he used an expletive to describe the protesting athletes during a speech in Alabama, and followed it up with tweets suggesting fans boycott the league and owners suspend or fire anyone who kneels.

The NFL punched back with 30 owners releasing statements defending their players, while hundreds of players took part in league-wide demonstrations prior to that week's slate of games, from kneeling to linking arms to staying in the locker room during the playing of the anthem.

The Lions players and coaches have continued to lock arms during the anthem since that week. The team also initially had several players kneel, but it was reported that Ford, in a team meeting, requested they stand. In exchange, she committed to financially supporting their causes. 

“As a team, we came together, and talked with Mrs. Ford and the owners, and we understand the issues for the most part,” former Lions running back Ameer Abdullah said. “I definitely want to be an aide in growing the social awareness in this country. It is a race problem in this country. We do dance around the topic a lot. And Mrs. Ford has come forward and said, as long as we compromise as a team and make a unified demonstration, she’ll back us financially.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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