Around 1 p.m. on Feb. 23, a warm Sunday afternoon a couple weeks after the Super Bowl, yet another unarmed black man was killed in the United States.
Ahmaud Arbery, an avid jogger, left Brunswick, a primarily black city in southeast Georgia. Running through the predominantly white neighbouring community of Santilla Shores, Arbery was chased down in a truck, confronted and fatally shot by George and Travis McMichael, a father and son who allegedly believed Arbery was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood.
It would ultimately take 74 days for the McMicheals to even be arrested, part of that delay the result of a pair of local prosecutors holding up the case for weeks before ultimately recusing themselves due to a conflict of interest. In that time, a website — runwithmaud.com — was launched to raise awareness about the case, and Arbery’s name and story spread widely across social media.
On May 8, the Players Coalition, an organization founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest that works to “improve social justice and racial equality in America,” released a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General William Barr. In it, they requested an immediate federal investigation into Arbery’s death.
Seventy-four athletes, coaches and executives signed their names to the Players Coalition letter. Among them was a name that may have surprised a lot of people, and that certainly stood out: Tom Brady.
Until now the Players Coalition may as well have been called the “Black Players Coalition.” Josh McCown is the lone original member of the coalition who is white. Although it helps to have any player speaking out on these issues, it’s not exactly revelatory that a journeyman back-up quarterback doesn’t move the needle the way the greatest football player of all-time does.
Since May 8, the day the letter was released, Brady is the most mentioned athlete in tweets about the Players Coalition. He’s attracted more attention for signing the letter than Boldin has for writing it and founding the organization.
That makes perfect sense for a few reasons.
First, Brady’s involvement is a big step for the previously apolitical athlete. Despite having a MAGA hat in his locker at one point, Brady has never before lent his name to anything other than his paid partners. Before the 2016 election when asked if he’d endorse Trump, he said, “I don’t even know what the issues are. I haven’t paid attention to politics in a long time. It’s actually not something that I really even enjoy. It’s way off my radar.” Later, when he was asked about Trump’s divisive policies, he said, “I just don’t want to be a distraction for our team.”
Second, in choosing to support the push for justice in Arbery’s case, Brady could provide a huge boost to the fight for racial equality in America. This particular situation is unique in that league officials are also involved in the initiative, with NFL executive VP Troy Vincent also signing his name. But short of Roger Goodell, the man most synonymous with America’s favourite sport is Brady. He is the face of the league.
When black people are the only ones voicing a rallying cry when black lives are lost, it sends the message that black lives are trivial, that these deaths only matter to other black people. When a sports journalist talks about it, they are told to stick to sports. When black athletes draw attention to it, they’re accused of playing the race card.
When a powerful white man like Tom Brady says that something needs to be done, he is much more likely to succeed in drawing attention to a systemic problem. A white athlete of Brady’s stature lending their name to the cause validates the argument in the eyes of many people. That’s why these acts and allies are of chief importance.
Historically, we’ve seen the power of white figures amplifying black actions. “Pee Wee” Reese putting his arm around Jackie Robinson as Robinson was being heckled became part of both men’s legacies. So much so, that there is a scene dedicated to it in the Robinson biopic “42” and a statue of the moment was erected. At the dedication of that statue, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, stated: “It’s a historic symbol of a wonderful legacy of friendship, of teamwork, of courage — of a lot of things we hope we will be able to pass on to young people. And we hope they will be motivated by it, be inspired by it and think about what it would be like to stand up, dare to challenge the status quo and find a friend there who will come over and support you.”
As minor as the act may seem to some, in signing his name, Brady is putting his arm around this cause.
The foundation of team sports is that we can achieve more together than apart. Brady joining the Players Coalition helps to build a bridge on a divisive issue, one that may allow people on both sides to achieve more understanding and humanity — and maybe help prevent more lives from being senselessly lost.
It also lays down the gauntlet for other prominent white athletes. Can another player in the league honestly say they have too much to lose by showing their support when the player with the single most endorsement deals in the entire NFL just showed his?
There is a burden on black athletes to speak up on social issues that doesn’t exist for their white counterparts. That doesn’t end with Brady’s signature, but it’s clear that the conversation about racial and social justice in America can’t just exist in an echo chamber of like-minded people if we hope to accomplish anything tangible.
Hopefully, more white athletes — and white people — follow Brady’s lead. Because white support matters.