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Detroit — It truly has been extraordinary, the images from all 50 states, every major city in America and most major cities in Europe. Black faces, brown faces, white faces of all ages marching together, shouting together, singing together. Scattered instances of violence involving protesters and police were ugly. The overwhelming volume of peaceful images was uplifting.

Many people spoke and some people listened, including thousands in the sports world, players and coaches, pro and college, black and white. The country was brought to its knees in the aftermath of the horrific police killing of George Floyd, and perhaps this is different, an actual, profound impetus for change.

Obvious question: Why is it different in a nation wracked by racial strife for hundreds of years?

Here’s a possibility: Because more powerful words are being spoken by more powerful and diverse people, particularly in the arena this social movement grew, the NFL.

It was four years ago that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism. The protest spread, fans criticized it, President Trump railed against it, TV ratings dropped and the league pushed back. In an already-divided nation, it was the perfect wedge, using patriotism as a cover.

Unwrap those flags

There can be no similar pushback now, not after 18 of the NFL’s most renowned black players released a poignant video last week asking people to listen to the grievances of Black Lives Matter. It was a backlash after Saints quarterback Drew Brees restated his position that he supports the issue, but still considers the act of kneeling during the national anthem to be disrespectful.

Brees may have wonderful intentions to support the military, and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But when he didn’t acknowledge the reason for the kneeling, he helped muddy the message. Many white people viewed it as a slap at the flag and the military, no matter how many times Kaepernick and others explained it was to draw attention to police brutality.

Amid a torrent of criticism, including from many black teammates, Brees apologized Thursday with a statement saying his words “lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.” Later Thursday night, he delivered a stronger video apology that concluded with: “I am sorry and I will do better, and I will be part of the solution, and I am your ally. And I know no words will do that justice, that’s going to have to be (action).”

That’s where the next step must come, from words to actions, and the mighty NFL is a fine place to start. It can be difficult, and sometimes requires two-stepping, as Brees and Commissioner Roger Goodell showed.

Goodell’s first step was a tepid statement of support. By Friday night, as players became more vocal, Goodell doubled down with a much more impactful video.

 “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell said. “We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”

Words matter, words can hurt and heal, words can change minds, painfully, slowly. It would’ve been nice to hear Goodell say the words “Colin Kaepernick,” but he does work for the owners, so that’s not a surprise. But the vastness of the worldwide protests, and the swifter-than-usual response has been staggering, in ways large and small.

Black Lives Matter is now painted in huge yellow letters on the street leading to the White House. Legislation is being introduced in Minnesota and elsewhere for police training reform, including the banning of chokeholds. More leaders from both sides of the aisle are speaking out.

Michael Jordan, who famously spent much of his career dodging controversial issues, pledged $100 million over the next 10 years to organizations dedicated to ensuring racial equality. The NFL pledged $20 million, on top of $40 million previously donated, for the same reason.

But the most startling difference is not the color of money, but the color of skin. Watching protests from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York to Detroit, the number of white marchers, more than 50 percent in many places, is heartening.

Joining the cause

Black leaders and athletes have long said their cause would be boosted if white leaders and athletes stood up too. That’s happening at an incredible rate now, from NBA coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, to NFL and college football coaches. In Denver, 50 Broncos players and all 25 of the team’s coaches marched together.

In Brees’ case, you can debate the motive of his apologies, but I wouldn’t debate his fortitude to back them. When President Trump — who once said kneeling players should be fired — publicly admonished Brees for apologizing, Brees didn’t run from the fray. He responded with an open letter to Trump, saying the flag was being used to distract from the real issues.

In an Instagram video, the Lions’ Trey Flowers tried to explain in a frank, heartfelt manner. It wasn’t hateful or spiteful, just hopeful.

“For white people, it’s not your fault to not know (the black experience),” Flowers said. “To not want to know, that’s the problem. That can be solved by simply listening.”

In a league that’s 70-percent black on the field, there are only four minority head coaches. Goodell can say all he wants about supporting diversity and racial justice, and he can even mean it. But it’s not up to him to prove it. It’s up to the 32 owners, and in that regard, they’ve been awful.

My goodness, this is a league that had to propose some ridiculous amendment to the Rooney Rule — devised to require more minority candidates be interviewed — just to get the owners to take it seriously. Again, the owners say the right things and make the appropriate donations, but the cause stops at the bottom line, when it impacts league revenue.

In case you were wondering, the 2018 rule prohibiting kneeling during the anthem is still on the books. The league doesn’t enforce it, but when football resumes, you wonder what expressions will be made. Washington’s Adrian Peterson has stated he will kneel. The Lions’ Duron Harmon said he hasn’t considered it yet, but felt there’d be some type of silent protest.

CLOSE

New Lions safety Duron Harmon talked to the media about racism on Friday. The Detroit News

Lions coach Matt Patricia canceled virtual football sessions to simply let his players talk about their life experiences. And that’s where this has to go, not only by listening, but by understanding.

Lions players say they’ve had productive conversations, and Harmon has been encouraged by the support of white players and by Brees’ contrition. Lions center Frank Ragnow said it’s been “eye-opening” to learn what black teammates have experienced, and he’s “1,000 percent” behind them. He vowed to do something about it, such as the uncomfortable task of calling out people when he sees or hears racist acts.

There are no excuses now. The world has shown by the throngs in the streets that when you speak out, you don’t speak alone. If you haven’t lived the experience, learn it. It’s just one step that must lead to more, but battling racism requires looking out windows, and also into mirrors.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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