A call for more NFL stars to speak up, ignite action for social causes

Little did I know that in the months leading up to my enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame back in 2017, I was in the beginning stages of creating a new legacy. 

I knew I had an opportunity to really make a difference with my induction speech. I remember saying to my speech writer, Arthur Joseph, "I want my speech to be bigger than me. If I were to die and this was the last chance I had to give a message, what would it be about?" 

At the enshrinement ceremony in August, I addressed thousands of people in Canton, Ohio, with a speech explaining the legacy of my ancestors, including my great-great-great grandfather George Tomlinson who was brought to America from West Africa almost 200 years ago and put in enslavement, and the history of my last name. Near the end of that speech, I made a call for unity:

On America's team, let's not choose to be against one another. Let's choose to be for one another. My great great great grandfather had no choice, we have one. I pray to dedicate ourselves to be the best team we can be, working and living together, representing the highest ideals of mankind.

It's been nearly three years since I delivered that speech. And this is not where I hoped America would be.

Once again, this country is reeling from the senseless killings of African Americans by police officers. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks died at the hands of the police. Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down by a former policeman and his son. Like many others in the wake of all this tragedy, I've been consumed with great sadness, disappointment and anger.

I haven't watched the video of Floyd's death in its entirety. I've seen snippets and photos on news channels, but I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the cruelty encapsulated in those 8 minutes and 46 seconds. I'm not sure I ever will. It's too painful and brings back a lot of memories from experiences in my life that made me realize I am not equal in this country.

Growing up in the Waco, Texas, area, people told me that some folks wouldn't like me because of my skin color, and I had heard of Blacks being discriminated against. But it didn't affect me directly until my senior year in high school. Our team was playing in Lampasas, Texas, where a vast majority of the community was white, and I noticed their football team had one Black player. When I scored a touchdown during that game, there were a number of white people hanging on the fence around the field yelling the N-word at me. And it wasn't just once. It was over and over -- making sure I heard it. It was so casual for this group of people, and that was the first time I had seen that type of hate up close.

I moved on. But the more I thought things might be getting better, there would be another reminder that they weren't.

In 1998, while I was in college at TCU, there was the gruesome and racist murder of James Byrd Jr. by three white men in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was beaten, chained to the back of a truck and dragged down the road. The senseless, hateful murder affected me at my core. I felt for one of my teammates who knew Byrd and went back home to Jasper for the funeral.

There was another reminder just a few years ago. In my own neighborhood, overt racism might not be bubbling at the surface, but stereotypes and prejudices are still quite prevalent, especially from law enforcement. I went hunting with a diverse group of friends. We took two cars, with my white friends in the first car and me and some family members following behind in my truck. We stopped at a gas station where a police officer was parked and observing the overall scene. We went inside, chatted and got back in our vehicles. The second we pulled out of the gas station, the cop starts to follow me. Sure enough, shortly thereafter he turned his siren on and pulled me over.

He asked me, "Hey, what were you doing back there? You were talking to the car ahead of you, are you with them?"

"Yes, what's the problem?" I replied before the officer proceeded to tell me that there were a lot of drug deals done at that gas station. To which I said, "So you pulled the Black man over?"

Once I handed my ID over to him and he realized who I was, he immediately started backtracking. But it was far too late for that. We knew why he pulled me over and not my friends.

These situations happen every single day, but they will never break our spirit. We've watched our ancestors go through this fight so my generation can experience something closer to equality. We should have been past this a long time ago, and it's unfortunate that it's taken a video of a man getting killed by those who are paid to protect for some to recognize there's a problem. It's why more of our white brothers and sisters joined our fight by uniting with us, speaking out with us and advocating for us.

The courage, empowerment and unity displayed nationwide by peaceful protesters of all backgrounds has been extremely moving. It's certainly been a light amidst all this darkness, and I've been uplifted by the actions of many NFL players who've set a fantastic example by making their voices heard and putting their feelings into action. The video released by a collection of players calling on the league to "condemn racism and the systemic oppression of Black people" and "admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting" was quite powerful. Seeing a superstar like Patrick Mahomes say "I am Tamir Rice" was poignant, as it tapped into a direct, heartbreaking reality that we, as Black men, have to deal with in our society. And that video is just one of many heartening responses I've seen from players. Leonard Fournette led a peaceful protest in Jacksonville. Matt Ryan has spearheaded a fundraiser to advance the lives of the African American community in Atlanta. Drew Brees, one of the best teammates I've ever had, has committed to becoming an ally after his disappointing and hurtful comments. And I could go on.

The way these players are using their platform is inspiring, and this obviously includes all of the admirable social justice work being done by the Players Coalition. It makes me wish I would have expanded Tomlinson's Touching Lives Foundation earlier to do more of this kind of work. Since my retirement in 2011, I've had a lot of time to think about why I didn't, and if I'm being transparent, I was too consumed with being the best football player I could be. I questioned myself constantly in those days, even when I knew a decision was the right one. I worried about how I was perceived by everyone. 

Being the face of an organization, the San Diego Chargers in my case, is a lot to take on for anyone. I was juggling my duties as a player, being in commercials, my family, taking care of my mother and being a role model for my nieces and nephews. During my career, I made the conscious decision to answer the one question that had consumed me in my life: Was I a good enough player? Proving I was good enough was the chip on my shoulder and it ate at me constantly. 

In all of that, could I have found a way to do more for the cause of social justice? It would have been a lot, but I know I could have. I should have.

But again, if I'm being honest, I didn't ever feel the pressure to speak out on this issue. I knew that racism remained a problem but at various points throughout my career, there were times when it felt like there was real progress. Specifically, when Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States, I really (and erroneously) thought we'd turned a corner. 

Things changed for me when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012. I felt so many emotions, including that somewhat helpless feeling I had felt so many times before. It was so devastating knowing in my heart of hearts this 17-year-old boy had done nothing wrong and the sole reason he was shot and killed was because of his skin color. That was the event that forced everyone to think and talk about these issues. 

In the five years between the end of my playing career and my Hall of Fame induction, there were countless incidents, including Colin Kaepernick's peaceful protests that raised awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement, that really forced me to wake up. Each tragedy was heavier to carry than the last, and with that, the realization that I needed to use my speech to inspire action.

Then my drive for change really began in 2018, almost immediately following my speech, when I founded Team America. It became the umbrella for every vision and initiative I wanted to be part of. With a goal to create real change, Team America was created to be a platform for inclusiveness, driven by opportunity, which aims to lead our nation to a new standard of tolerance; building bridges of unity across all religions, classes, races and ideologies.

The core pillars of Team America are character and leadership, service and engagement and community uplift and economic empowerment. With the help of corporate partners, we've been able to really push these initiatives. The Tomlinson Center for Leadership, another tier of the foundation, has its own curriculum that builds character and leadership in our youth. We've been able to give scholarships to graduating high school seniors, and since 2004, we have distributed more than 2,100 baskets of food annually to families around the holiday season.

I am so very proud of all Team America has done in such a short time, extending our mission to people in influential positions within the community, including mayors, superintendents, athletic directors and local police officers. For as much progress as I've seen -- and remember, progress is a slow process -- I do wish I would have done more to foster this vision during my NFL career. But I can still do more. I've become a more vocal advocate in recent years, but there are things I can still do: attend town hall meetings, meet with the mayor to discuss initiative ideas and engage in an open dialogue with our local police chief on how we can better our community.

I understand where I fit in my communities, both Waco and Fort Worth, as a Heisman Trophy finalist, first-round draft pick and Pro Football Hall of Famer. I am fortunate to have a loud microphone that can reach far and wide. But with great power comes great responsibility -- the responsibility to be an advocate for causes I care about. The aforementioned actions are all things I can do to help improve my own communities.

But active NFL players have the ultimate outreach, as young, influential trendsetters in all avenues. I've already been so impressed by what I've seen over the last month. People of every social status will listen to players, meet with them, talk with them, because of the position they are in. Their influence is larger than life.

Now is certainly the time to get involved and push for change. Understanding the power you have as an NFL player is one thing. Understanding that making real societal change takes a lifetime of work is another. You must realize what you're signing up for. Starting this type of work or platform is legacy-building because it has the ability to transcend lives off the field.

I challenge players to find where they fit within their own communities. It's a hard thing to fathom, especially when you're at the peak of your career, and it's a huge undertaking to act in the moment. But capturing a moment in time can change history and influence the future. Look at Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Jesse Owens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others. These heroes were ostracized for years because they dared to speak out, but what they did mattered. It still matters. We've seen change in the last half century thanks to their acts against racism and inequality.

The torch was passed to Kaepernick, who just four years ago jeopardized his livelihood to take a stand against racial injustice, police brutality and inequality. While the backlash for his peaceful protests, in which he knelt during the national anthem, was intense and long-lasting, the narrative surrounding Kaepernick has changed in recent weeks. Whether he finds his way back into the league or not, Kaepernick will be remembered for much more than football. He has helped change this country forever -- for the better.

So to current NFL players: Keep it up. Don't stop now. I'm so incredibly proud of you for having the strength and courage that I wish I had had earlier in my career to speak up for what I knew was right. Your power to affect change may never be as potent as what it is today. For my football brothers still in the league who haven't yet found their voice, there's still time. As the reigning Super Bowl MVP recently said, "I'm blessed to have this platform."

It's time to use it.

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