Adapted from Rise of the Black Quarterback, the first title from Andscape Books.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes grabbed his television remote and hit the power-off button. He couldn’t stomach the images on the screen another second. It was May 26, 2020, and Mahomes was shaken by a news report about a Black man named George Floyd, who a day earlier had been killed in Minneapolis by police while being arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
The report included a clip of a smartphone video revealing that Derek Chauvin, a white police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while Floyd was handcuffed behind his back and lying facedown in the street. Sitting silently in the living room of the Kansas City, Missouri, home he shares with his fiancée, Brittany Matthews; their daughter, Sterling Skye Mahomes; and their dogs, Silver and Steel — an impressive 4,400-square-foot contemporary ranch he purchased for about $2 million in 2019 that’s elegantly appointed but definitely understated for the athlete with the most lucrative contract in the history of team sports in the United States — his thoughts quickly turned to his extended family. The young NFL superstar, who three months earlier punctuated his remarkable ascent to the top of the game in only three seasons by directing a historic Super Bowl victory, has uncles and cousins who could have easily faced the kind of inhumane treatment at the hands of police — anywhere in the United States — that Floyd suffered on that fateful day. There’s no shortage of disturbing data to support the claim that police are more likely to use force against and kill Black citizens. Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men. Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than are white women. Among all groups, Black men and boys face the highest lifetime risk of having fatal interactions with police: About one in 1,000 Black men and boys will be killed by police. And between the ages of 25 and 29, Black men are killed by police at a rate between 2.8 and 4.1 per 100,000.
The bleak facts weren’t new — far from it. But for Mahomes, what played out in the video stirred something unfamiliar within him. The incident seemed different than other fatal interactions between police and people who look like him, many of which had been captured on smartphones in recent years. As it turned out, Mahomes wasn’t alone in his thinking.
With government agencies, places of business, and schools nationwide shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of millions of people were confined to their homes and glued to screens. A captive audience watched Chauvin arrogantly place his hands into his pants pockets and stare defiantly at horrified onlookers as he slowly extinguished Floyd’s life. Chauvin’s depravity in torturing and killing Floyd (about 11 months later, Chauvin would be convicted on three counts of murder and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison) both horrified the nation and sparked international outrage. Across the United States, people left their lockdowns and took to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic oppression of Black and brown people. The movement soon spread globally, with protesters denouncing racism and police brutality worldwide and declaring solidarity with like-minded demonstrators in the U.S.
Mahomes could barely think of anything else. He knew he had to do more than sympathize. This was not the time to remain on the sidelines, the man widely considered the NFL’s best player told himself. Mahomes, however, wasn’t interested in merely making a gesture. He was determined to make a difference. Of course, for Mahomes, doing anything could be perilous for him personally as well as disastrous for his employer — professional sports’ most successful and powerful league. For anyone, but especially for someone — still just 24 — whose prominence had come in a blinding flash, the issues he confronted were as expansive as they were thorny. Life was coming at Mahomes hard and fast, like a 300-pound defensive tackle.
Four days after Chauvin finally removed his knee from the neck of Floyd’s corpse, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement on the incident and two other recent killings of Black people that received widespread media coverage. The statement read:
The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reactions to these incidents reflect the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel. Our deepest condolences go out to the family of Mr. George Floyd and to those who have lost loved ones, including the families of Ms. Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Mr. Ahmaud Arbery, the cousin of Tracy Walker of the Detroit Lions.
As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.
Considering the tightrope the league walked back then around the issues of systemic racism and police brutality, the statement was in keeping with the times. But what Goodell and NFL team owners didn’t realize was that times were changing rapidly.
From the moment former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the NFL player-protest movement — which evolved into a new civil rights movement in sports — during the 2016-17 season, Goodell and club owners were a step slow while being squeezed on two fronts. They tried to mollify supporters of President Donald Trump, a group that also comprises a huge part of the league’s immense fan base, by never offering a full-throated endorsement of the players’ demonstrations during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The players were the other side of the vise. With such a large part of the league’s workforce being Black (among players, African American representation in the NFL reached about 70 percent during the 2016-17 season), Goodell and team owners couldn’t outright dismiss the players’ concerns. The league’s leaders struggled to find a sweet spot between the two sides because, well, one didn’t exist.
The NFL reached perhaps the best decision it could with the bottom line always paramount for franchise owners: The league provided considerable funding for the players’ social justice efforts. With resources in hand, players redirected their energy from demonstrating during the national anthem to supporting grassroots organizations that aspired to increase equity in society, especially those pushing for criminal justice reform. Although it took longer than team owners would have preferred, the NFL succeeded in defusing the situation.
But for many NFL players, and even some employees within the league office, three words immediately came to mind after Goodell’s statement about the killing of Floyd was released: not good enough.
Chauvin’s actions represented stark examples of police brutality and systemic oppression (arguably the most egregious ever caught on video), the conduct that inspired the large-scale NFL player protests during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. As the commissioner of an overwhelmingly Black league, Goodell should have delivered a forceful and explicit condemnation of police brutality and systemic racism, which was conspicuously absent from his statement. The statement fell woefully short of addressing the moment, some league employees believed. An NFL social media staffer named Bryndon Minter was among them.
Embarrassed by the league’s insufficient response, Minter went rogue. He contacted Michael Thomas, an All-Pro wide receiver with the New Orleans Saints who’s active on social media, about creating content — a video unauthorized by the league office or any NFL club — that would put league owners on notice. Thomas loved the idea and took the lead in recruiting other league stars. For the production to be a hit, Thomas knew he needed the biggest in the NFL’s constellation: Mahomes. Having Mahomes attached to the players’ project would make NFL club owners and decision-makers take notice. Fortunately for Thomas, Minter, and the other star players, he caught Mahomes at just the right moment, the moment when the league’s best player was looking for a way to engage. By participating in the players’ video, Mahomes realized he would leave no doubt about his position on other matters of race. Of course, there were risks involved. Mahomes weighed them — and the correct choice still jumped off the page.
“Before you do anything, you have to think about it,” Mahomes said. “You have to examine what positives can come from anything you do, and what negatives can come from anything you do. For me, I knew that I had to take a stand. I had to be a part of this video. I had to be a part of the change … a part of the movement.
“And me having my platform, I knew that it would mean a lot. Not only for me, but also for everybody who came before me and everyone who comes after me. I knew that I had to be a part of it because … it was just time to take that step. I mean, again, yeah, I thought about it. But enough was enough. We needed to take a stand — I needed to.”
On June 4, 2020, under #StrongerTogether, Thomas and the other players involved in the project posted the finished product to their Twitter accounts. Mahomes was among a group of more than a dozen Black NFL stars who pushed owners to acknowledge past wrongs and truly stand with them, asking the league to admit it erred in its response to peaceful NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic oppression, condemn racism, and affirm that Black lives matter.
Thomas, who led the NFL in receptions during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, opens the one-minute, 11-second video. “It’s been ten days since George Floyd was brutally murdered,” Thomas says. He’s followed by a cadre of A-listers, including Mahomes, Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, and Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, who alternate between appearing on-screen individually as well as collectively in the video mash-up as they continue to recite the statement Thomas started. “How many times do we need to ask you to listen to your players? What will it take? For one of us to be murdered by police brutality?” Then they all ask, “What if I was George Floyd?” From there, the players pivot. One after another, they recite the names of Black people killed during interactions with law enforcement officers or armed vigilantes.
“I am George Floyd. I am Breonna Taylor. I am Ahmaud Arbery. I am Eric Garner. I am Laquan McDonald. I am Tamir Rice. I am Trayvon Martin. I am Walter Scott. I am Michael Brown Jr. I am Samuel Dubose. I am Frank Smart. I am Phillip White. I am Jordan Baker.” The video closes with the players making their specific requests of team owners and league leaders. “We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit. So, on behalf of the National Football League, this is what we, the players, would like to hear you state: ‘We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter.’ ”
The NFL responded quickly to the video, issuing a statement the same night the players released it. In the statement, which the league office posted to social media, the NFL said it stands with the Black community. The statement read:
This is a time of self-reflection for all — the NFL is no exception. We stand with the Black community because Black lives matter.
Through Inspire Change [the league’s social justice arm], the NFL, players and our partners have supported programs and initiatives throughout the country to address systemic racism. We will continue using our platform to challenge the injustice around us.
To date we have donated $44 million to support hundreds of worthy organizations. This year, we are committing an additional $20 million to these causes and we will accelerate efforts to highlight their critical work.
We know that we can and need to do more.
As league executives, coaches, and players burned up the phone lines and wore out their thumbs texting one another about the video and the NFL’s rapid response, one name dominated the discussions and text threads: Mahomes.
It wasn’t just that Mahomes joined in. He played a key role, looking into the camera and declaring for the first time in the video, “Black lives matter.”
To that point, the NFL had not acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formed to protest incidents of police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black people. In stoking culture wars to his political advantage, former President Trump has regularly railed against BLM for, among other things, as he spun it, being “a symbol of hate.” Mahomes’ decision to go all-in on the video — especially regarding a topic that NFL power brokers had strenuously avoided — put the NFL in a difficult position.
When the quarterback who’s standing atop the mountain looks into the camera and declares, “Black lives matter,” well, it suddenly becomes time for Goodell to explain the realities of navigating the new world to his billionaire bosses. Once the players’ video dropped, with Mahomes essentially having top billing in it, Goodell was on the clock. Ignoring the players’ bold move was simply not on the table. No longer could the NFL offer its considerable social justice funding alone as proof it fully supports the majority of its on-field workforce. Backed into a corner and having only one viable option, Goodell chose it.
In a remarkable video response to what even some pushing for change within the game considered to be an ambitious, to say the least, series of requests made by the NFL stars in their video, Goodell the next day admitted the league erred in how it handled peaceful NFL player protests of police brutality and systemic oppression, condemned racism, and affirmed that Black lives matter, pledging his allegiance to the players in the battle for equal justice under the law.
Adapted from RISE OF THE BLACK QUARTERBACK by Jason Reid Copyright © 2022 Jason Reid. This is the first title from Andscape Books, an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide.