By John Glennon
What were they expecting to happen by not practicing?
This was an honest, genuine question I received from a Twitter follower – and Titans fan – in the aftermath of the team’s decision not to hit the practice field on Thursday.
He wasn’t trying to stir trouble, take a stand or make a statement, just seeking an answer to an action that – to him – made no logical sense.
So let’s take a look at why exactly the Titans – along with several other NFL teams – chose not to conduct business as usual in response to a Wisconsin policeman shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back at point-blank range last Sunday.
The first reason to sit out practice? Because there was no game to boycott. NBA players made a powerful statement on Wednesday night, forcing postponement of three playoff games and reportedly discussing the cancellation of the remainder of the season. Several of North America’s other pro sports leagues, such as the WNBA, MLS and MLB, followed suit in varying degrees. It was a stunning display of the influence athletes wield these days, a recognition of the sizable platform pro sports commands.
Had this been a week leading up to a schedule full of NFL regular-season games – or even preseason contests – I feel certain the league’s players would have chosen not to participate. But that option wasn’t immediately available in late August. So the Titans took advantage of what they could, making news simply by not doing what was on the docket.
Which brings us to a second point: Had the Titans punched the clock and gone about their regular routine Thursday – without acknowledging the most recent in a string of questionable shootings of Black people by law enforcement – it would have been a tacit acceptance that such actions are okay. Sure, a player or two, perhaps coach Mike Vrabel as well, might have addressed the issue following practice when prompted. But the message delivered would have been that life isn’t worth putting on pause for such an event, that no further attention need be drawn to it. Nothing to see here, keep moving along.
Instead, the Titans did what they could to raise a collective hand and wave it, making fans aware of their feelings and sharing their beliefs. Leaders like safety Kevin Byard and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, supported by teammates standing behind them, were able to craft a public message that further illustrated their position.
“With my brother Ryan (Tannehill) standing next to me and all my brothers standing behind me, we wanted to show solidarity and be unified, and say that we’re tired,” Byard said. “We’re sick and tired of seeing the things that’s been going on, on social media for entertainment. Seeing our Black brothers and sisters be murdered by police like it’s nothing. It’s time for a change.”
Third, the Titans’ decision not to practice gave the team time and opportunity for a productive day of a different sort.
Understand that this was by no means a situation where players called in a day off for themselves, half-heartedly paying heed to current events while secretly enjoying rest and relaxation. All the players reported as usual to the team’s facility early Thursday morning, prepared to grind through another sweaty, training-camp practice. It was only when they began speaking with one another, and with an empathetic Vrabel, that a change from the regular routine was deemed in order.
Players didn’t pack up and head back to bed at that point, either, immediately jumping into team meetings to vocalize – and share – their heightened emotions. They took a break around midday for Byard, Tannehill and Vrabel to address the media, but were scheduled to gather once again later that afternoon.
“We had a lot of powerful discussions,” Byard said. “Guys spilled out their emotions, guys teared up and we had a lot of constructive conversation.”
So what did the Titans hope to point to as tangible progress, on a day that could have been spent thumping pads, catching passes and readying for the Denver Broncos on Sept. 14? Plenty.
- The most intriguing development was that the team created a ‘Zoom with a Titan,’ program, which will allow Titans players to reach out to thousands of middle Tennessee children. In Vrabel’s words, the plan is to “teach and to hopefully help recreate the atmosphere that we have when every one of us walks in this (Titans facility), which is an atmosphere of love, respect, hard work, compassion, communication, equality, and accountability.”
- They also crafted talking points for upcoming discussions with elected officials, reasoning that through dialogue, the decision-makers in the city, state and country will better understand their fears and concerns.
- Third, the Titans planned to ensure that by day’s end, every player that left the building would be a registered voter. The team made certain that on Nov. 3, every coach and player – no matter what might be on their football schedule that day – would have an opportunity to vote.
“We might not have been productive at football (Thursday),” Vrabel said, “but we were a productive football team.”
Will Thursday’s rash of canceled practices mark the end of the NFL protests in relation to oppression and racial injustice? We’ll see. Vrabel said he was optimistic the Titans would return to practice on Friday, but resolved to “see where things went,” indicating he wanted to make sure players had every opportunity to clear their minds before returning to the football field.
We’ll also see just what might happen if another such incident – another controversial shooting along the lines of Blake, George Floyd or Breonna Taylor – occurs in the months to come. Surely then we’d see player boycotts of actual NFL games, whole Sundays full of hard-hitting action taken away from the league’s millions of supporters.
Would that anger plenty of fans? Absolutely. Would it turn plenty of fans away? Probably.
But sometimes stirring the pot is the right choice when it comes to trying to implement social change. Sometimes taking big risks is necessary, in order to prompt honest questions – and to provide answers for those willing to keep an open mind.