Last weekend, as Americans continued to grapple with the shooting of Jacob Blake, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles owner, chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie did something that every CEO in the U.S. is capable of doing. In a wide-ranging public “State of the Eagles” speech, he argued that Black people in America have been dealing with a lethal pandemic not only during the COVID-19 outbreak this year, but during a 400-year history of oppression, from the state-sanctioned slavery of earlier days to the structural racism of today. By making that point, Lurie provided a much-needed counterbalance to the Donald Trump administration, which has attempted to demonize the Black Lives Matter movement. The question is: Will other business leaders stand up for Black Lives Matter and those who have suffered such as Jacob Blake?
Lurie’s speech was posted in full on the Eagles website on August 30. He got straight to the point.
“....Obviously we’re going through two terrible, terrible pandemics,” he said, “One that's existed for the history of our entire country, the pandemic of systemic racism, violence to minorities, oppression, all that kind of activities that have been part of our history, and obviously the once-in-the-last-100-years health pandemic that's been devastating, as well.”
Lurie was not simply venting. He was also drawing a clear roadmap for other CEOs to follow. He argued that accepting the reality of the pain and destruction caused by structural racism, and learning from it, is the only way to make progress.
He appealed to his audience to drop the blinders many continue to wear in the aftermath of the violence that met Jacob Blake and quit pretending that racism ended with the Civil War. And, he was right.
Black people are still being harassed by self-appointed police, murdered by self-appointed police and, in the case of George Floyd and others, murdered by actual uniformed police officers. In the latest such incident, earlier this week a Black man riding a bicycle in Los Angeles was stopped by police for an as-yet defined “bike violation,” an encounter that ended in his death. That presents a sharp contrast with the treatment of non-Black mass murderers like Dylan Roof and Nikolas Cruz, both of whom were apprehended peacefully after their rampages.
Lurie acknowledged the difference in treatment when he appealed to his audience to “take ownership of [the pain] and step aside for a moment and listen and listen and listen.”
“And then try to use the gift of elevation,” he continued, “Which is a human gift, and take ourselves to a higher level of ourselves and try to figure out what we all can do, both as a country, as a city and ourselves and our football team, what can we do to be part of the solution.”
Lurie also spent a considerable amount of time urging his audience to stop treating the victims of structural racism as statistics — and take the time to know them as individual people. His advice was simple: Take your attachment to someone you know, either through fame or familiarity, and apply their passing to George Floyd, the violence Jacob Blake encountered, or any number of other victims of structural racism.
“Okay, what if that was Kobe Bryant?” Lurie asked rhetorically, referring to the basketball star who died tragically in a helicopter accident last January. Or what if it was the young, charismatic actor Chadwick Boseman, who succumbed to colon cancer just a few days ago after keeping his diagnosis out of the public eye for four years?
Finally, Lurie presented other CEOs with a simple strategy for avoiding the patriotism trap. He did not directly refer to the famous quote, “my country, right or wrong,” but he may have had in mind the more nuanced meaning of the full quote, first attributed to the early 19th-century Naval officer Stephan Decateur. U.S. Sen. Carl Schurz issued a more straightforward version during a speech in 1871 when he said:
"My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Lurie has updated that sentiment in a similarly unmistakable way:
“We can all love our country, but to love our country is to own our country, and that's where I really believe strongly that we have to own the good and own the bad, and we won't be able to change the bad until we realize we're responsible for it.”
There is much more to Lurie’s speech, but the real impact will be felt when the NFL season begins. In the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting, players on the Eagles have been discussing how they will demonstrate their reaction, and they have been sharing their thoughts with their fans through the Eagles official website.
In a team meeting on August 27, safety Rodney McLeod argued that professional athletes have a responsibility to take a stand. “Our brothers and sisters, particularly in the African American community, are being hurt, or being killed, at an alarming rate,” he said. “Another incident has taken place and now we have to take sports and move it to the side and understand and address the situation at hand.”
Though NFL leadership had been slow to voice support for the Black Lives Matter movement, by the end of July the league did begin to formulate action steps. The plans include using the end zones during the first week of the season to convey social justice messages such as "It Takes All of Us" and "End Racism.”
Considering all that has happened since July, it seems likely that the Eagles and the NFL will take stronger actions as Opening Day approaches, and their continued support for Black Lives matter should help to defuse the Trump administration’s attempts to foster violence as a campaign strategy. If college football responds in a similar way, the strategy will be further undermined.
Hundreds if not thousands of other U.S. business leaders have the same opportunity to speak up in defense of equal justice, peaceful protest and civil rights, if only they have the courage to do so.
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Image credit: Chris Henry/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.