'Strength In Numbers': NFL Player's Open Letter Urges Unity to Battle Divisive Trump

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'Strength In Numbers': NFL Player's Open Letter Urges Unity to Battle Divisive Trump

"I am convinced," writes linebacker Russell Okung, "that we will never make progress if we do not find a way to come together."

'While many of us can be grateful that our ownership groups don't take direct orders from the President,' writes NFL player Russell Okung, 'we are also aware that the owners are much more united than we are as players.' (Photo: LA Chargers)

In an open letter published on Friday, NFL player Russell Okung, a Pro-Bowl linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers, called on his colleagues to come together in a more organized manner as the focus on those "taking a knee" or otherwise demonstrating against police violence and racial injustice have become the focus of threats and intimidation by President Donald Trump, the league, and team owners.

First published in the New York Times, the letter speaks to the power of Colin Kapearnik's original protest message—one Okung laments has too often been lost in the conversation—but also to the systems at work that have kept players more divided in both their message and actions, especially compared to the league's powerful owners.Russell Okung of the Los Angeles Chargers before an exhibition game in August. (Photo: John Hefti/Associated Press)

He writes:

Currently, the will of the players who align with Kap's message is being diluted. Rather than our collective voice prevailing in a way that spans the league, you are seeing individual teams respond separately to the protest in 32 different ways. It’s telling that these decisions are being made at the team level and not being driven by the interests of the players collectively. Some teams are standing and locking arms. Some are staying in the locker room. And some are now being banned from protesting altogether. While many of us can be grateful that our ownership groups don't take direct orders from the President, we are also aware that the owners are much more united than we are as players.

"While I don't have all the answers as to how to ensure we are not robbed of this moment," Okung continues writes, "I am convinced that we will never make progress if we do not find a way to come together and take action that represents the will of the players. What we have is strength in numbers."

In his letter, Okung acknowledges some of the specific barriers that have kept NFL players from acting in unison and with shared purpose, including the "unique dynamic" set up by the players' union. "The NFL Players Association, for better or worse, is limited in its capacity to 'unify' our interests," he writes. "Unlike a traditional labor union, the foundational nature of our relationship to each other is defined by fierce competition and learned opposition. The system is designed to keep us divided and to stifle our attempts to collaborate—we're made to see each other as the enemy. Indeed the system celebrates when it puts us at odds with one another."

Okung says that what is needed is a way for players to connect with one another and make decisions as a unit in way that fosters a collective message while protecting their agency as both professionals and members of the community.

"I'm about shifting the narrative," Okung contends. "We can’t be distracted by what [the president] is trying to do. We’re honing our voice. We’re not unified against Trump, we're unified against social injustice."

Read the letter in full below:

Fellow NFL Players,

By now you’ve likely read the commissioner’s letter addressed to NFL executives and have seen reports about the league’s upcoming meetings. It occurs to me that any attempt to respond collectively as players is complicated by numerous challenges, and that our options for speaking with one voice are limited. This means we can either wait until we receive our respective marching orders, speak up individually, or find a way to collaborate and exercise our agency as the lifeblood of the league.

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about how we might have a meaningful conversation together. I wish it were as simple as public perception would have you believe — that we all have each other’s cellphone numbers and hang out together on a regular basis. Since that’s not the case, I hope this letter reaches as many active players as possible, and serves as a catalyst to convene a conversation among those of us who are uncomfortable having important decisions made without us in the room.

Things have clearly gotten out of control. As a pragmatist, I will admit, I initially doubted the merits of Colin Kaepernick’s protest and questioned his strategy.

I was wrong.

There is now no doubt in my mind that what he did last season was a courageous, prophetic, self-sacrificial act that has captivated a nation and inspired a powerful movement.

If I had his cellphone number, I would tell him that.

As Kap’s message has now been distorted, co-opted and used to further divide us along the very racial lines he was highlighting, we as players have a responsibility to come together and respond collectively. But how can this happen practically?

The uncharted territory we’re dealing with requires us to innovate if we are to effectuate any meaningful change — if we are to look back at this moment with pride when our grandkids ask us one day how we responded to the circumstances we now face. This requires some sober self-reflection and a greater awareness of what is limiting our effectiveness.

Ours is a unique dynamic. The NFL Players Association, for better or worse, is limited in its capacity to “unify” our interests. Unlike a traditional labor union, the foundational nature of our relationship to each other is defined by fierce competition and learned opposition. The system is designed to keep us divided and to stifle our attempts to collaborate — we’re made to see each other as the enemy. Indeed the system celebrates when it puts us at odds with one another.

As a competitor who loves the game, I can appreciate this aspect of the league to a certain extent. But the current controversy is obviously about much more than football.

Currently, the will of the players who align with Kap’s message is being diluted. Rather than our collective voice prevailing in a way that spans the league, you are seeing individual teams respond separately to the protest in 32 different ways. It’s telling that these decisions are being made at the team level and not being driven by the interests of the players collectively. Some teams are standing and locking arms. Some are staying in the locker room. And some are now being banned from protesting altogether. While many of us can be grateful that our ownership groups don’t take direct orders from the President, we are also aware that the owners are much more united than we are as players.

Player protests have caused such a disturbance that the NFL has now chimed in and prioritized discussions on this topic for next week’s meetings.

Owners have the ability to quickly and efficiently communicate, collaborate and align their objectives to serve the broader interests of the shield. By and large, they are carrying out a strategy to this end, regardless of how it impacts us as players and regardless of how much it reflects our actual will. I don’t mean this to sound disparaging or suspicious of all NFL owners. Again, it’s just an observation of how the system is designed. It is, in many ways, what we all signed up for.

While I don’t have all the answers as to how to ensure we are not robbed of this moment, I am convinced that we will never make progress if we do not find a way to come together and take action that represents the will of the players. What we have is strength in numbers. But our strength is currently not being leveraged because we have no means of direct communication that is not — in some way, shape or form — controlled, monitored or manipulated by outside forces.

So here’s my idea: Let’s open up a line of communication just between us, and be ready to respond with one voice as players. Let’s transcend the “natural” divisions that have been defined by the league and sanitized by a fictional narrative of competition above all else.

Now, I can’t exactly put my phone number or email address in this letter for obvious reasons. But there’s another way to start moving things forward. I’m going to initially lean on Twitter, the preferred social tool of our day, and attempt to connect us with each other. If you follow me (@RussellOkung), I will follow back and DM you next steps for collaboration. From there, we can build out and discuss options for a better way to communicate with one another going forward.

Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m hoping to help facilitate some practical next steps by first addressing our limited ability to communicate.

I look forward to hearing from you on the President’s favorite medium. Until then, stay strong.

Much love,


Russell Okung

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