Lions emphasize team unity, support players' decisions during national anthem
Detroit — Ahead of Sunday's season-opening kickoff, there is little question there was a different tone to the offseason that brought us to this moment. Beyond the absence of fans in the stands, a result of the ongoing pandemic, seeds planted by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and watered by continued concerns about social injustice and a summer of civil unrest, resulted in the NFL embracing player advocacy.
With the phrases "End Racism" and "It Takes All of Us" across the back lines of the end zone at Ford Field, the Detroit Lions took the field for pregame warm-ups wearing long-sleeved gray shirts with the adopted motto "We Won't Be Silent" splashed across the front.
After an offseason filled with heartfelt discussions about race in America, the Lions canceled an August practice in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, adopting the motto in the process.
Under that umbrella, the team tweeted out several quotes from its players on Saturday night, explaining the phrases and names each player selected to be displayed on the back of their helmets, part of the league's social-justice initiatives.
Included in those decals was Ahmaud Arbery, cousin of Lions safety Tracy Walker, who was shot and killed during a struggle while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood after residents tracked him of being a suspected burglar.
"I want to represent him and everything he stood for such as happiness, laughter and putting smiles on people's faces," Walker wrote.
The team also released a statement on Saturday, emphasized team unity ahead of the playing of the national anthem.
"Throughout the past five months, we as a team have listened, learned, and grown as people," the statement read. "We have continued a conversation that has allowed our players and coaches to be heard, understood, and supported. Our conversations have been conducted with passion, respect and love.
"As we begin our season, we understand many eyes will be on the playing of the national anthem. For this moment we should reflect on the lessons that the game of football teaches. This game shows how a team comprised of individuals from all different backgrounds and belief systems can come together to love each other, support each other, and care for each other; that a team can be different and still strongly united.
"We support everyone's right to stand, kneel, or remain in the locker room during the anthem. We support and respect the ideals of our teammates. Unity does not always mean doing the same thing. Unity is understanding, listening, loving, and supporting those around you. Unity is recognizing others have experiencing a life through a different lens than your own. Unity is understanding that change is needed."
When the anthem played, a healthy portion of Detroit's roster temporarily returned to the locker room. Among the handful who chose to kneel, the group included Walker, running back Adrian Peterson and quarterback Matthew Stafford.