The Chargers knew they wanted to do ... something. But what?
The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was the biggest story in America, and the reality of an unarmed Black man being shot seven times in the back by a police officer suddenly made the idea of playing football seem shallow and insignificant. The Detroit Lions canceled a practice on Tuesday, and the NBA stunned the country with an unprecedented walkout from a slate of playoff games the following night.
The message from LeBron James and the rest of pro basketball was clear: If you won't pay attention to the social injustice that continues to plague the nation, maybe you'll take notice when your sports are gone. It was a powerful gesture -- and now teams across the NFL had to decide what kind of statement they wanted to make.
Rams head coach Sean McVay reacts in shock when Rams communications man Artis Twyman shows him video of the Blake shooting for the first time. "Are you kidding me?" McVay asks. "What the f--- is wrong with people?"
It's the opening shot of the penultimate episode of Hard Knocks: Los Angeles, one of the most powerful hours of television in the series' long history. The scene ends with the camera holding on McVay, silent and pensive as he sits on a couch in his office. "Like the rest of the country," Hard Knocks narrator Liev Schreiber intones, "Sean McVay is left with questions: Among them, how to get his team ready for the season with the world on fire."
Elsewhere in Southern California, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn attempts to read the temperature of his own team. At first, it's not easy. He proposes over a Zoom call that the Chargers continue to practice, while offering any player the opportunity to sit out if he's not in the right place mentally or emotionally.
The timing is tricky for the Bolts. On Thursday, the team is scheduled to travel to its brand new home, SoFi Stadium, to participate in an inter-squad scrimmage that will air live on NFL Network. The team arrives in Inglewood as scheduled, even going as far as dressing in the locker room. But the decision is made to call off the scrimmage. Lynn would later tell reporters the team spoke in the locker room and opted against practice in favor of reflection and dialogue surrounding social justice in the country.
Hard Knocks took us into that locker room.
"Right now, I feel like a lot of guys in here got something on your mind and you need to get it out," Lynn says. "I don't want to take the football field until we get it out. And I don't give a damn how long we're in this locker room. We're gonna get it out right now. And we're gonna talk."
Soon after, special teams coach George Stewart addresses the team.
"Guys, I'm 62 years old ... 62. I've lived this life. I've talked to some of you men this morning," Stewart began. "I'm tired. I'm tired. I've seen it from age 6 to 62 years old. I'm tired of it. I grew up in the damn South. Excuse my damn language. I know what it's like to be oppressed.
"We talk about, 'What can we do?' You gotta lose something to get something. I look at Colin Kaepernick. His ass lost millions of f------ dollars, because he believed in something. ... If it's us, we gotta go do it. You gotta be willing to lose something. For us to talk about practice, alright, the practice. If we don't practice today, what about tomorrow? We are football players, we're not politicians, but it's up to us to speak our damn platforms. It's the mindset, men, until we make a change for ourselves, put our nuts on the damn line. That's when the change is gonna come. We got to have a damn plan, men, and that's black and white."
The meeting ends with a final Lynn address.
"I believe because of what we're doing right now, this uprising, we're making people see the gorilla in this country. Racism. And I think that's what we gotta keep doing is bringing awareness to the situation and getting the right people on our side."
Lynn's challenge is clear. Don't just speak privately about your anger and ideas for action. Use the platform of being a professional athlete to make a difference. After the meeting wraps, the players change and head back to the field for an extended round of interviews. They say their piece. Share their hopes and frustrations. It won't solve the nation's problems, but the dialogue is a start, and the whole scene -- on both the macro and micro levels -- shows the tangible progress made in the four years since Kaepernick dropped to a knee.
At the end of a long day, Lynn and quarterback Tyrod Taylor sit in a small group in the locker room. Lynn is asked what the Chargers plan to do next.
"Things change like I told you every day," he replies with an exhausted smile. "So ... on my way home, I'll figure out what we're going to be doing tomorrow."
The NFL must go on, just like the country where the games are played. The work is never done.