“We educated each other. That’s what we need to do on the executive levels, in our schools, in our government. It starts with a conversation.”

Before the Super Bowl LI, Brandon Marshall, wide receiver for the New York Jets spoke during a Wharton panel on Business Radio Powered by Wharton on SiriusXM Channel 111 called “From Protest to Progress: The Power of Sports to Improve Race Relations.”

“Sometimes things come along when you need to step into the conversation,” he said.

Wharton Professors Ken Shropshire and Scott Rosner, hosts of the Wharton Sports Business Show, broadcast the panel live from Houston. The discussion at Texas Southern University was moderated by Jocelyn Benson, CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.

Prof. Ken Shropshire, co-host of the Wharton Sports Business Show

The NFL is a decentralized organization with a diverse workforce and a very public face. Last year controversy erupted when Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee to protest rather than stand for the national anthem. The conversation about sports, race, political activism, and community advocacy continues as athletes and their community partners turn conversation into action.

Stephen M. Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins and founder of RISE, and a member of the panel, called it “a rebirth of athlete activism.”

Other panelists included Rashad Jennings, running back for the New York Giants, Michael Thomas, safety for the Miami Dolphins, and Michael Bennett, defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks. Each of the NFL players on the panel has worked with RISE to conduct town halls and develop programming within their own communities. They were among the athletes who participated in the report RISE released during the town hall on the reach and impact of NFL athlete activism, with recommendations the sports industry can use to drive social change.

Here are four takeaways from the discussion about how to begin conversations in diverse organizations and communities and how to turn them into positive action.

1. Start the conversation.

Ross: Athletes have a unique ability to start conversation. You can take something negative and make a positive out of it.

Marshall: Would we be having this conversation if Colin Kaepernick didn’t take a knee? That’s how you provoke change — by starting a conversation. When I had started talking to my teammates, I had one thing in my head, my perspective, my opinions. I thought they’d have the same opinion I did, but they didn’t. We educated each other on things. That’s what we need to do on the executive levels, in our schools, in our government. It starts with a conversation.

2. Use the platform you have.

Jennings: Society wants us to be role models, but when we try to speak, we hear, “Just shut up and play football.” Make up your mind. Do you want us to lead or entertain?

Thomas: For athletes speaking out, we want you to support us. Our families still live in these communities. We’re from these communities. When we see what’s going on in politics or injustice, that affects us. We want to use our voice and platforms because that’s what we’ve got. We have 9 to 10 years. We’re trying to use that voice while we’ve got it.

Marshall: I’m not an expert. There are activists that are there every single day. They know both sides. They’re experts in this field. But social injustices affect all of us and it’s a fight we should all be in. When Colin did what he did, I was behind him but I had to educate myself so that I didn’t stop the progress that he started. You make the biggest impact by starting.

I’m only in the NFL for a few years, but I’m always a black man. Anything that goes on in the community, I’m a part of. I have to be there to find a way to start something and be a part of it.

3. Listen to what the community needs.

Thomas: Out of all the things we can make a difference in, which one are we going to pick? We worked with the whole team to identify that. We felt that we could make a difference collectively on race so we went out to different schools to try to figure it out.

You have to be organically in the community. Since we are in the NFL, we don’t get the opportunity to go out and be part of the local black community every day. We had to go out and talk and find people to work with. We had to go out and find schools. Until we can see what people are feeling and thinking about and what they need, we won’t make change.

I went out to find a community center and found out they were underfunded and needed computers. We have to be seen doing the work, and if we’re not, it doesn’t matter how much we talk.

4. Make an action plan.

Bennett: My teammates made the collective decision to keep the conversation going. It couldn’t just be us protesting. We needed to have action to go with it.

Note: NFL teams, including the Seahawks, worked with RISE and had town hall meetings to hear legislators and others in the community. The outcome in Seattle was a tailgate with every home game to bring together community leaders — police officer, firefighters, everyone came together with common ground, which is football. Another program brings police officers and players into neighborhoods every Tuesday and to play catch, interact, and do homework for 20 minutes.

Bennett: Now the first time these kids interact with these police officers, they’re not doing it when they’re in trouble. They’re interacting over football and they get to see each other in a different light. Kids got to see police officers and athletes getting along and giving back to the community. They could see that we were getting along and respect each other, and they should too.

Jennings: A conversation will take you so far. Then you have to have an organic action and make some change.

I’m humbled by the position I find myself in. There’s nothing special about me, but I find myself in a special position. Any chance I get to utilize it toward things that are important, I want to do that.

Posted: February 17, 2017

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