NFL, Jordan, NASCAR pledge fight against racism

In the days after athletes and coaches called for social change, top sporting leagues, owners and organized players followed suit

A NASCAR official kneels while saluting during the national anthem before the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Brynn Anderson / AP Photo)

The protests following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police continued for a second week. The impact has been felt both across the nation and locally, and sports have not been immune to the fallout.

A group of NFL players, including MVP Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley, released a video, organized by Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas and a self-described “rogue NFL employee.” The video, titled “Stronger Together,” called for the league to listen to its players, and it even scripted out a statement they would like the NFL to release.

In a move that was a surprise to many, including some of the NFL owners he represents, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video in which he recited the script that the players issued in their video.

“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people, Goodell said. “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. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much-needed change in this country.”

“Without black players,” Goodell continued, “there would be no National Football League. And the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff. We are listening. I am listening, and I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family.”

While the strong statement from Goodell was considered a positive step, it didn’t mention former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who stirred up a nationwide debate following his protests during the national anthem. Players demanded an apology to Kaepernick, as well as the chance for him to rejoin the league.

The statement also drew fire from President Donald Trump, who attacked Goodell on Twitter. The NFL responded with a statement, saying, “The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

Closer to home, another issue arose from the protests and involved the Carolina Panthers.

Ken Gill, the CEO of CPI Security, a North Carolina-based home security company, sent an email to Jorge Millares of Queen City United, who had called for people and businesses to take action following Floyd’s death.

Gill told Millares to “spend your time in a more productive way. … A better use of time, would be to focus on the black on black crime and senseless killing of our young men by other young men.”

CPI has been a longtime sponsor of the Panthers, and their ads have included appearances by former coach Ron Rivera, former linebacker Luke Kuechly and current running back Christian McCaffrey.

Gill issued an apology for his comments, but the Panthers later announced they were ending their relationship with the company. The team was joined by minor league baseball team the Charlotte Knights, the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and college athletics programs at NC State and the University of South Carolina, who all severed ties with CPI.

Not all news arising from the protests involved controversy, however. Michael Jordan announced that his Jordan Brand shoe and apparel company would be donating $100 million to organizations that promote racial equality and social justice.

The money will be distributed over the next 10 years with the stated goal of “ensuring racial equality, social justice and greater access to education.”

The former Tar Heels star and current owner of the Hornets famously avoided getting involved in political issues, reportedly saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But he issued a statement putting himself and his company firmly on one side of the debate.

“Black lives matter,” he said. “This isn’t a controversial statement. Until the ingrained racism that allows our country’s institutions to fail is completely eradicated, we will remain committed to protecting and improving the lives of black people.”

Nike, the parent company of Jordan Brand, also committed $40 million over the next four years in support of causes in the black community.

Both NASCAR and the NHL — whose race teams, rosters and owners are predominantly white — also took steps over the past few days to enact change.

During their warm-up laps before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 40 participating cars pulled to a stop in front of the empty grandstands and shut off their engines so NASCAR President Steve Phelps could deliver a message over their radio sets that proclaimed “our sport much do better.”

After Phelps spoke to the NASCAR drivers, they observed a 30-second moment of silence. Then, as the cars refired their engines and slowly pulled away for the green flag, the Fox broadcast cut to a video made by several past and present Cup drivers, including Rusty Wallace and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, as well as retired star Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Bubba Wallace, driver of the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 and the lone black driver in the Cup Series, donned a black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” before the race.

That was followed by a group of current and former NHL players announcing the formation Monday of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an independent organization whose “mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey.” San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane and former player Akim Aliu — who called out Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters for his past use of racist slurs, leading to the former Hurricanes coach resigning from the Flames — were named co-heads of the new endeavor.

“In creating our alliance, we are confident we can inspire a new generation of hockey players and fans,” the letter, signed by all seven members of the organization’s executive committee, said. “We are hopeful that anyone who puts on skates or sits in the stands will do so without worrying about race, gender or socioeconomic background and will be able 10 express their culture, identity, values, and personality without fear of retribution.

“We are united in our efforts and promise to work tirelessly to bring about the change our sport and society needs.”