ALLEN PARK — The Detroit Lions canceled practice on Tuesday in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin. That was unprecedented. Nobody had ever canceled anything in protest of police brutality, let alone an entire practice in the middle of the shortest offseason in NFL history.
This is the same league that blackballed Colin Kaepernick after his protest against police brutality in 2016. Four years later, you had an NFL general manager and NFL head coach standing outside team headquarters with all their players announcing practicing had been canceled.
It was unprecedented.
Now, the sports world is following their lead.
The Milwaukee Bucks, headquartered just 30 miles from the Blake shooting in Kenosha, announced on Wednesday night they would not play their playoff game against the Orlando Bucks. A few minutes later, Orlando showed solidarity by announcing it would not accept a win via forfeit.
A few minutes after that, all three NBA playoff games were off, a historic strike even by the NFL’s more socially conscious standards. Then the Milwaukee Brewers said they would not play their baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds.
The NFL continued the movement on Thursday morning, with the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts announcing they would not practice today, using the time instead to discuss police brutality and social injustice.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia certainly isn’t looking for credit for starting the movement, but was encouraged to see so many other pockets of professional sports follow their lead.
“I think if there’s any chance that maybe we got everybody to stop and think for a minute, that’s really great,” Patricia said via Zoom before practice on Thursday morning. “We have a simple saying — just listen. And right now, that’s what we want everyone to do, is just listen. We understand this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, and it’s just something we have to make sure we do a good job of to continue the conversation.
“This team is special, it’s a great group of guys, they’re great leaders, they’re great teammates, and I just appreciate that.”
Related: How the Lions’ historic protest came to be
The NFL isn’t exactly known for social-mindedness, and has often trailed the NBA and other leagues in allowing players the space and platform to affect change. But that has changed this year, most notably Commissioner Roger Goodell announcing in a video that he was wrong to oppose Kaepernick’s protest in 2016.
The Lions had eight players kneel before a Week 3 game the following season, just days after President Donald Trump called players “son of a (expletive)” who should be fired for protesting police brutality by kneeling during the anthem. Detroit later encouraged players to stand during the anthem, but provided money for players to donate to social justice initiatives as a concession.
This year, the Lions’ social activism has intensified. When George Floyd was killed beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis in late May, Patricia canceled plans to install the offense and defense via Zoom and instead used that time to open the floor to players to just talk. They spent hours discussing police brutality and social injustices, as well as their own brushes with law enforcement and racism.
All-Pro return man Jamal Agnew, linebacker Christian Jones, defensive end Romeo Okwara and rookie EDGE Julian Okwara marched across the bridge to Belle Isle in a silent protest against police brutality. Agnew wore a shirt and carried a sign honoring Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency responder who was killed by police in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky. Her killers have not been arrested.
Patricia and running backs coach Kyle Caskey also attended the march.
On Sunday, Blake was shot eight times in the back by police officers as he tried to enter his SUV in broad daylight in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His three kids were in the car. He’s currently paralyzed from the waist down.
The Lions were off Monday, but Patricia knew the shooting would disturb the team and once again held a team meeting to discuss the situation when the team reconvened early Tuesday. Eventually players decided it was no day for football and agreed to cancel practice.
“The World Can’t Go On,” they wrote on a giant whiteboard outside team headquarters. “We Won’t Be Silent.”
Now, much of the sports world hasn’t gone on.
There has been criticism of the protests, of course, much of which centers on whether canceling an August practice can actually change anything. Patricia said he hears those concerns, and the team is figuring out ways to make actionable change.
”That’s obviously part of all the conversation, is always converse about what we want to do and what we want to do next,” Patricia said. “We certainly are trying to put ideas together. We have some ideas we’re trying to put into action. A lot of it is just making sure we do it the right way and trying to figure out a way to make an impact so that it does continue — make people stop and think and listen to each other.”
While others have begun shutting down in protest of the Blake shooting, the Lions are now back to work. They practiced in the rain on Wednesday, then returned to the practice fields for a hot, muggy practice on Thursday morning. Patricia was noncommital about Detroit’s plans going forward, although more social activism seems to be on the way.
“What we do right now is day by day,” Patricia said. “I think everything is moving at a face pace, and things are happening that, for us, we try to stay as normal as possible during normal times, but certainly everything isn’t normal. So day by day, we’re just trying to make sure we’re all in a good place and all just OK and ready to do whatever the team feels like we need to do that day.”