These are dizzying, dangerous times. We’re living through a pandemic and a period of gripping civil unrest. We’re all trying to survive a terrible twist of new math: 1918 + 1968 = 2020.
But a smart football coach always knows what to say. He can hear the pulse of a locker room from his office, even with the door closed. And he always knows who to serve. So does a professional sports empire where 59% of the competitors are black.
In both cases, players must take priority over politics and personal philosophies. Players must be heard as well as cheered. Even when a chunk of fans might be disappointed. Even when outside pressures can seem unbearable.
Kliff Kingsbury is showing a deft touch in this highly-charged arena. He isn’t mincing words. He recently called George Floyd’s death “a murder.” He called for accountability and justice. He used strong language without reservation.
He also respected the mood and what the moment meant to his players, giving the Cardinals a day off from recent meetings to honor Floyd’s memory. It was a small decision, but apparently, it made a profound difference.
Running back Kenyan Drake tweeted out his appreciation, saying “gestures like this create dialogue and expands the vision to help take the next steps for a better tomorrow.”
Kingsbury praised his players, expressing pride at their activism. Larry Fitzgerald wrote a powerful op-ed for the New York Times. The deeply-convicted DeAndre Hopkins has assumed an even stronger voice, criticizing his alma mater (Clemson) for honoring the name of former vice president and slave owner, John C. Calhoun. He also defended Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, who is under fire for his assistant coach’s use of a racial slur.
Finally, Kingsbury said his team will support their players if they choose to protest during the national anthem, the most important show of allegiance to date. In effect, he stepped on the third rail for his players.
Because we all know where this story leads. We know the anger, the politics, the hypocrisy, the missed messages, the mixed messages and the fans who claim they will swear off football forever. After all, they have every right to feel as convicted about their beliefs as those playing the game.
But this time feels different. Commissioner Roger Goodell has publicly sided with his players, a historic gesture that might foster a new spirit of partnership. Maybe they can resolve the gnarly issue of kneeling during the national anthem, so the intent isn’t politicized or misconstrued.
Take comfort that a powerful force is building in Arizona. Kingsbury is making all the right moves, saying everything a NFL team longs to hear at the moment. It’s everything Hopkins desires in a NFL franchise, a star player who once said he “felt like a slave” in Houston, following contentious comments from their late owner, Bob McNair.
It’s happening because a smart, humble football coach like Kingsbury knows the importance of serving his players. It’s how you build a team with unforgettable fire. It’s how you build a juggernaut like Secretariat, with a heart 2 1/2 times larger than the average competitor.
You do it by standing behind players when times are good. You do it by standing in front of them when shrapnel is flying. You do it by weaving a tapestry of shared experiences into an unbreakable bond.
You do it by empowering players, embracing them for who they are and what they stand for. And not just what they can do for you.