Four years ago, Akiem Hicks saw Colin Kaepernick protest police brutality and racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem and thought: If I join him, I’m out of a job. For good.
The NFL has not solved all its issues with racism, and won’t by slapping “END RACISM” in the end zones of stadiums across the country. Colin Kaepernick remains a free agent in a league that’s seen four teams – including the Bears – sign Mike Glennon since 2017 (so no, Kaepernick is not out of the league because he was a “mediocre” quarterback).
Shortly after Chiefs and Texans players gathered at midfield in a demonstration of unity before Thursday night’s season opener – during which boos were heard from the fans in attendance – the “Tomahawk Chop” rang out at Arrowhead Stadium.
But the NFL is, on the whole, more supportive of its players – the majority of whom are Black – speaking out and acting for change now than it was four years ago.
“I hope the players know that they’re in an environment here where they will be supported and we’ve told them that whatever they decide to do, we will support them,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said. “Again, I’m very impressed that for a lot of guys it’s more than the symbolism of taking a knee. It’s concrete action to make the positive change in our community. If they feel more encouraged now to speak out, we welcome that.”
The Bears were among the NFL teams to have players decide to cancel practice in the wake of the August police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. – less than an hour away from Halas Hall. Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, Matt Nagy hosted a lengthy, emotional, raw team-wide Zoom, allowing players an opportunity to speak about their experiences with racial injustice.
And the conversations Bears players, coaches and staff had over the last few months were not happening in years past.
“I've been with Jay (Rodgers, defensive line coach) now for four or five years but there's certain things, you know, conversations that you just haven't had,” Hicks said. “Right? And (in August) I think we really sat down and just as a group just and broke down some of our feelings about not just football but the world as a whole and shared our experiences.
“And not to say that was like big kumbaya moment but there is a certain level of comfort in knowing that you have people that support you and support your beliefs and support your life.”
The Bears have not been one of the teams to release specific lists of actions they hope to see taken, like the Baltimore Ravens and Texans have. But multiple players talked about feeling empowered to talk about the issues Black Americans face every day; to demonstrate on gamedays how they see fit; and to focus on actions that can address and eliminate the systemic racism Black Americans have faced in the United States for centuries, and continue to face today.
“I think being here with the Chicago Bears and knowing this organization really cares about us personally and how we feel with our opinions, it means a lot,” running back David Montgomery said. “It carries weight. I think the Chicago Bears have done a great job with that. And coach Nagy has done an even better job of allowing us to know that this is a (transparent) relationship and we all can just speak our hearts and minds and not be judged.”
We’ll see what members of the Bears, and/or the Bears as a whole, do on Sunday at Ford Field and then throughout the 2020 regular season. Wide receiver Allen Robinson, for one, will wear a Black Lives Matter decal on the back of his helmet. Some players, too, have been outspoken about systemic racism in the United States, too.
“It's over 500 years of American history that we try to make, we try to claim to be so proud about,” outside linebacker Robert Quinn said in August. “But when you look like me, what's there to be proud about when, no offense, people that look like you (white) disrespect people that look like me. So why am I supposed to sit there and defend the flag that don't defend me?”
And we’ve seen players take action, whether it’s registering to vote upon arriving at Halas Hall or (as quarterback Mitch Trubisky and left tackle Charles Leno Jr. did) helping former Bears linebacker Sam Acho buy a liquor store in a food desert on the west side of Chicago and turn it into a food mart.
But whatever Bears players do, the organization – starting with McCaskey – wants those players to feel empowered, not disparaged.
“I think the biggest thing is the support that everybody here has in this organization,” coach Matt Nagy said, “from the top down in being able to do what you want to do.”