Will They Play?

This week there were a lot of signs that we’ll see sports restart soon in July. Major League Baseball came to an agreement to start in a couple of weeks. The NBA says they’re going to have games and a version of the “playoffs” in a campus setting at Disney in Orlando. The NCAA has allowed some teams to begin voluntary workouts and the NFL has a plan to open training camps in late July preparing for a full, on-time season to start in September.

But it’s all experimental and speculative at this point with protocols for health and safety changing almost daily. On one hand it seems possible to play games but on the other it’s a daunting task.

“Everyone wants to make sure we get this thing right,” Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone has said.

But what is “right?”

Nobody knows is the honest answer.

Perhaps following what the Premier League is doing in the UK can be a guidepost. Last week they announced they had tested players and staff for the tenth week in a row, and started playing games on June 17th, joining the Bundesliga in Germany, La Liga in Spain and Serie A in Italy.

Of the 1,829 people tested this week, one was positive for Covid-19. They put together what they called a “health and safety” policy for the clubs and the players with part of it absolving the league from any legal action a player might take if they were to contract Covid-19 while playing. They can’t sue the league.

They’re playing without fans in the stadiums, making every game free on television and using a “sound carpet” on the broadcasts run by the audio technicians blended with the authentic sounds from the match. The players don’t hear the broadcast sound in the stadium.

A couple of weeks ago the PGA Tour started back up, playing tournaments with no fans. The Tour anticipates allowing 8,000 fans at The Memorial tournament in a couple of weeks. They have a very direct set of protocols to try and protect the players, yet Nick Watney tested positive a week ago Friday at the Heritage.

“Since March we have been working to develop a comprehensive health and safety plan that would be considered a best practice among professional sports leagues,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said on Wednesday. “While we’ve been thorough in building a plan that would mitigate as much risk as possible, we knew it would be impossible to eliminate all risk.”

They put contact tracing in effect and are testing players, caddies and officials regularly, yet several caddies tested positive causing Graham McDowell, Brooks and Chase Koepka and Webb Simpson to withdraw from this week’s event in Connecticut.

At what point do they call off the competitions to let things “cool down?”

Who knows?

Monahan didn’t give any specific scenarios where the PGA Tour would stop playing. He did admit if there were a significant number of positive tests, it would be something to consider.

Are the players going to continue to show up knowing the possibility of exposure to the virus?

“We continue to learn from an operational standpoint,” Monahan continued. “Every number hurts. We all need to remind ourselves that we’re all learning to live with this virus. It’s pretty clear that this virus isn’t going anywhere.”

Watney had an inkling he might have contracted the coronavirus when the “Whoop” strap on his wrist detected shallow breathing while he was asleep. It’s one of the signs of Covid-19. He tested positive the next day.

The Whoop strap is used by many athletes and a lot of players on the PGA Tour have been wearing one to collect physiological data throughout the day: How’s my breathing, my activity, my temperature, how am I sleeping? All of the things involved with trying to stay in peak physical condition.

Watney’s detection, even though he was asymptomatic, reportedly has pushed the Tour to purchase a thousand bands and distribute them to players, caddies and essential staff.

Those bands are also going to be made available to NBA players in what’s being called their “bubble” in Orlando. One player referred to the bands as “a tracking device.”

Testing will be almost daily at Disney but the NBA says ““a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption,” in their 113-page handbook for players and staff on health and safety in Orlando.

So what number constitutes “small” or “expected?”

Add to that question that a single day record of 5500 new cases were reported in Florida this week and again, nobody knows.

Baseball will rely on local governments to allow, or not allow fans into stadiums. “That’s the plan,” was Houston Astros’ owner Jim Crane’s answer when asked if he expects fans at Minute Maid Park.

“We still have to go through the player protocol,” he said. “I think the intent at some point is to get the fans in the ballpark,” alluding to the economics of the game.

Major League Baseball didn’t really address having fans at the games in their 101-page health and safety protocol, leaving the decision up to the teams and local governments.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott said, “For one, we hope to have the coronavirus better under control. We look forward to working with the teams to find their strategies to make sure that they’ll be able to open their stadiums safely.”

In Illinois, they’re saying, “If and when play resumes with fans, clubs must adhere to all requirements of the 2020 Best Stadium Operating Practices unless MLB specifically provides otherwise.”

So for baseball the policy remains fluid leading up to Opening Day. Last week MLB reportedly had 40 players and staff test positive.

Will that change the owner’s or the player’s minds? What number is too many?

Last week at Talladega, NASCAR experimented with have fans live at the race. In a grandstand that can hold 175,000, 5,000 fans were allowed to buy tickets to the race. They also opened forty-four RV spots. All with the restriction that you had to live within 150 miles of the track to attend. And you had to live in Alabama. No crossing state lines to see the race.

They might be able to do that at some other tracks. Bristol can hold 162,000 and Daytona 101,000 just in the main grandstand. But at both of those tracks, out of state fans are staples.

Along with basketball, operating a football team and playing that particular sport under the current conditions without acknowledging there’s a possibility of not playing or stopping because of the coronavirus seems a stretch.

“We realize we are going to have to live with COVID,” Stacey Higgins, the University of Florida’s associate athletic director for sports health said this week. “We’re going to have positive cases to deal with.”

“We’re fully prepared that we’re going to have a positive and we’re going to have to isolate that individual,” she added “If it gets to be too many, that’s where the UF Health people will help us with that process.”

Again, what’s “too many?” Nobody knows.

Florida has confirmed they have had at least 11 student-athletes from football, volleyball and soccer test positive. Their official position is that they are “well positioned to manage those cases.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert has said that without students on campus there can’t be any student-athlete activity. Add to that his comment to congressional leaders this week that all teams might not be ready to start at the same time and the uncertainty grows.

Just this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the NFL might have to follow the NBA’s lead and play in a “bubble” environment.

The NFL Players Association’s medical director also advised players to “stop practicing together in private workouts.” All this, after as many as ten teams in the league have reportedly had players and coaches test positive.

There are no reported cases among the Jaguars. The team started an Infectious Response Team in May to put their preventative protocols in place.

“The place feels deserted,” is how one Jaguars employee described the team’s stadium offices and training facilities downtown.
With all of the social distancing, temperature checks and constant cleaning, “It’s weird,” they added.

Don’t we all know that feeling.

Can Fun Save Golf

Can Fun Save Golf?

Driving down Ponte Vedra Boulevard you can see the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is starting to come back after being torn up for renovation. Same thing in town when you drive down San Jose. San Jose Country Club is re-doing their fairways and greens and changing one of their par threes nobody liked anyway. You can’t see it from the road but Pablo Creek off Butler Boulevard has also been taken down to the dirt and being rebuilt. And driving down A1A in Ponte Vedra you might notice the part of the Oak Bridge golf course you could see from the road is gone. Leveled to make way for an expansion of the Vicars Landing assisted living facility.

The Ocean Course, San Jose and Pablo Creek are going through the kind of renovation maintenance any golf course needs for long-term viability.

But at Oak Bridge, they’re doing something completely different.

“We’re looking to change the golf experience,” Oak Bridge Head Professional and General Manage Mike Miles said this week.

Miles is a former PGA Tour player who still has plenty of game, playing in the Senior PGA last year in Rochester. He shot 69 in the opening round at Oak Hill and played well enough to be paired with Bernhard Langer on Sunday. He hit it past Langer off the first tee but said he didn’t play well alongside the former Masters champion.

“He shot 67 and when I took my hat off to shake his hand on 18 I told him what an honor it was to play with him,” Miles recalled. “And I joked that I hoped my playing wouldn’t hinder his game in the future. He looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Ponte Vedra resident David Miller is the developer of the project and brought Miles in to make it happen. They met through golf when they both lived in Southern California and have a big vision when it comes to what Oak Bridge will become when it’s opened under it’s new name, “The Yards.”

The “Front Yard” is an update of the front nine at Oak Bridge.

“It’ll be plenty of a challenge for what I like to call the ‘Big G’ golfer,” Miles explained. “But we’ll also have it set up so just about anybody can play here.”

Miles oversaw the re-construction and redesign of the new/old nine holes, with MacCurrach Golf giving it plenty of “playability” with only ten bunkers in the loop. He recreated the holes with a nod throughout to famed golf course architects like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and others.

“We want people to have fun while they’re here,” he said pointing to a spot on the ninth hole where there used to be a bunker that everybody seemed to hit into. “I want guys to come in and have a beer and a hamburger when they’re done. Not stomp over to their car, throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off.”

I heard the word “fun” a lot talking to Miles this week, especially when we moved to the “Backyard.” What used to be the back nine on the old golf course is now unrecognizable. A beautiful new lake, stately oaks, practice greens, a huge putting green and a walking three-hole short par three course called the “beer loop” fill your vision as soon as you clear the back of the clubhouse.

“We want people to have options,” Miles said. “You can come over here from the Front Yard and play 12, 15 or 18 holes. Or just come straight here sit on the patio with your friends, enjoy the view, laugh, walk the beer loop, whatever.”

That’s a far cry from the rules-laden, stiff upper lip image that golf has in a country club setting.

Is this where golf is going? Judge Smails probably would not approve.

“I call it ‘fun golf,’” golf course architect Erik Larsen said when I asked him about the concept. Larsen is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and was the Executive Vice President of Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra. He redesigned Selva Marina into today’s Atlantic Beach Country Club. He’s seen plenty of hidden entrances and stuffy locker rooms but thinks there’s a change in the game on the horizon.

“There will always be a demand for traditional 18-hole golf courses,” he explained. “But golf play has reduced because of the time it takes. Time is a valuable commodity. Want to play less? Just go play three, four, six and come back. No big deal. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, there’s a practicality to all of it.”

When Larsen’s former colleague and fellow golf course architect Harrison Minchew did the redesign at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Course he specifically was thinking about giving players a chance to play, but play in less time.

“There are some scenarios at Jax Beach where they could play six or nine or twelve holes,” he said noting that the operator of any golf course has to be willing to create that scenario “Part of the design philosophy is to allow clubs to have players play less than 18 holes. You bring them back to the clubhouse not just at nine and eighteen. There are ways to do that if that’s part of your market.”

The popularity of Top Golf facilities around the country (there’s one you can see from I-295 at the Town Center) has brought a lot of new people to the game, somewhat unexpectedly.

“More than 70% of the people who go to Top Golf have never touched a club before,” former TPC at Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes explained. Hughes is now the GM and CEO at the Country Club of the Rockies outside of Vail, Colorado but while in Ponte Vedra was an early advocate for a new kind of facility for Miles and Miller at Oak Bridge.

“You can’t just be another golf course,” he explained. “I love the ‘fun golf’ thing. Ponte Vedra already has world-class golf courses. You have to build something that fits the population. An aging community along with a lot of young people you want to bring to the game.”

Nobody is going from Top Golf to the first tee at the Stadium Course. But that’s where the new Yards and places like Jax Beach get involved.

“Top Golf is that kind of phenomenon,” Larsen added. “It’s fun, and that’s what a practice facility can be. Light it, put some targets out there, play some music, have a bar and make it fun. That experience is fun and successful, so some resorts are looking into that.”

“Fun golf has to be beautiful,” he continued. “Lighting and landscaping will be the key. It’s on top of what the game is built on. Will it bring people to the game? Maybe. But it’s an interim step to bring non-players eventually to the first tee of a golf course.”

“Oak Bridge is going to fill a void, introducing people to golf,” Minchew added. “They’re playing music at Jax Beach outside the clubhouse. There’s room for them to expand the putting green to a putting course. They’re covering the practice tee. There’s a Top Golf feel going on there. I think most places are going in that direction. Golf needs to be fun, if that’s part of it, they should have at it.”

And Minchew added an important part of the equation.

“They made money in their first year and that’s unheard of these days. That’s a success story, making it fun, playing music. Just being there is fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

Larsen agreed that the new Yards is a perfect fit for the shifting demographics in Ponte Vedra and golf in general.

“The location makes it popular because Oak Bridge is in a community with a young population. It fits what’s going on there. If they promote things for kids, evening play, take two clubs, walk a few holes, they’ll hit a home run.”

Hughes believes The Yards will be the start of a trend in the golf business.

“The game has to figure out how to get people over to the ‘green grass,’” he said. “Building a facility like this can become the epicenter of health and wellness, a hub of activity for an entire community.”

In addition to the golf, The Yards will have a state-of-the-art pickle ball facility starting with twelve courts. A new grill with an outdoor patio as an adjunct to the Three Palms restaurant that’s in there now and they’ve even planned a spot for weddings under the oaks and alongside the lake.

“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Miles said with a smile. “We’ll have members but we’ll be open to the public. We’ll make it affordable. We want people to come out and enjoy themselves. There’s no better place to do this than right here.”

Do Sports Need Fans

As sports begin to dip their toe into what their post-pandemic product will look like, fans haven’t been a part of the equation. NASCAR, UFC, some European soccer leagues and now the PGA Tour have held competitions, but no “in-person” fans have been allowed.

Without fans, races have been won, fighters have had their hands raised and money has been doled out to golfers. So do they even need fans?

Watching the Colonial this week on television I didn’t miss seeing fans there. Charities in Ft. Worth won’t benefit from money generated by the tournament, but the actual competition didn’t suffer. As an individual sport, most of the players in golf naturally “social distance.”

They’re reportedly going to allow fans at The Memorial in Ohio next month. Early indications are that about 8,000 will be spread out over the 18 holes at Murifield Village allowing everybody their own space.

When the first UFC event was held here, former NFL player Greg Hardy won his match and said afterwards, “Thank God for not having the crowd,” Hardy explained after winning a unanimous decision. He was able to hear the announcers next to the octagon doing the broadcast and took some advice.
“Shout out to D.C. (Daniel Cormier) I heard him tell me to check him, so I started trying to check him. Game changer.”

Professional wrestling had its stars in the era of Bruno Sammartino, Jim Londos and Gorgeous George Wagner but it wasn’t until it moved onto television did the sport gain any traction. In fact, most regional wrestling groups started as a “studio” sport: no fans, just the performers and the announcers in a television studio.

That popularity led to the massive crowds that are on hand now at every appearance. It spawned the movie careers of Dwayne Johnson and John Cena. But if need be, wrestling could go right back to a TV production and not skip a beat.

For decades, the NFL has fought against being a studio sport. You’ve probably seen and heard the commercials produced by the Jaguars about “being there.”

It’s true, the sights and sounds and even the smells of being at a sporting event give some context to what that sport is about. That doesn’t translate through the television screen.

I’ve often said everybody should go to at least one Daytona 500. The spectacle of that day is jarring to the senses and gives you a sense of how invested fans are in the sport. To see the coordination of what happens on pit road and in the garage is impressive. The smell of grease, gasoline and burnt rubber, the sound of forty cars coming across the start/finish line make it unmistakable that you’re at a racetrack. You don’t get that on television. Seeing it in person is a whole different experience. But even without fans there, the racing, the pit stops, the preparation all happens the same way.

In 2017, the New York Knicks played half of a game against Golden State at Madison Square Garden presenting the game in what they called “it’s purist form.” No music, no PA announcer, no iconic organ in the background. Just ten players on the floor, shoes squeaking and the trash talking that goes on between teams.

Everybody hated it.

“It felt like church,” Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr told the media outlet The Ringer.

Draymond Green was more direct

“That was pathetic,” he said. “It changes the flow of the game, it changed everything. It was ridiculous. It just helps you get into a certain area. It takes you to a certain place.”

Perhaps that’s why the NBA is considering piping in crowd noise from their NBA 2K video game when they resume their competition, without fans.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has told teams there’s a real possibility that no fans will be allowed at games through next season as well. Will they use paper cutouts or perhaps robot dolls as some teams in the Korean Baseball League have?

“There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth. …” LeBron James said on the “Road Trippin’” podcast in March when asked about playing in front of empty arenas.

“That’s what also brings out the competitive side of the players, to know that you’re going on the road in a hostile environment and yes, you’re playing against that opponent in front of you, but you really want to kick the fans’ a** too.”

We would get a little closer to the games with no fans according to Steph Curry. “It would be raw,” he said on the Jimmy Kimmel Show. “This would take it a whole ‘nother level of just pure insanity of what we say on the court. That trash talk that happens. That might be something that’s really appealing from a fan perspective to get real up close and personal with what we do on the court.”

Hockey could probably do the same as basketball because it’s indoors. Pipe in crowd noise, have music and the PA announcer to give it the right ambience. But it still might have the feel of a glorified scrimmage once the players take the ice.

How many times have you been watching an event on television and heard the broadcaster, who’s in the arena say, “You can really feel the momentum shifting here.” None of that would be a part of the competition.

Could sports get along without fans from an economic standpoint?

Every viable professional sport has a television contract that makes it a profitable enterprise. It’s not whether the teams and the owners will make money; it’s only about how much.

In the NFL, the TV contract the league has and shares with the teams covers the total operating cost of running the franchise. Ticket sales, parking, concessions, club seats, sky suites, local radio and TV contracts and in stadium sponsorships all go right to the bottom line. It’s why the Giants and the Jets owners will always make more money than the Jaguars owner.

The local broadcast money available in in New York alone dwarfs what’s available in Jacksonville. It’s why the Jaguars, sellouts or no sellouts, will always be in the bottom half of revenue earners in the league.

Ticket sales in the NFL account for around fifteen percent of their total revenue. A 65,000-seat stadium, sold out at an average ticket price of $50, (which is probably a low number), brings in $3.25 million. Multiply that by ten games and you get a sense of how much money is flowing through that sport. They could get along without fans, no problem.

Minor league baseball and college football are a different story. With no major television deal and small rights fees, if any for radio broadcasts, minor league owners around the country rely on ticket sales, concessions and in stadium sponsorship to stay in business.

College football television contracts mostly are negotiated with the conference. It’s why college football programs count on ticket sales and in stadium purchases for 75% of their revenue. When you look at how many other programs on campus the football program supports, you can see how they need fans in the stands to flourish.

As we move into the summer, the prospect of Major League Baseball having a season becomes more remote. It’s not that they couldn’t play, but the players and the owners can’t come to an agreement on how much money both sides will make. Player’s contracts are guaranteed for the season if only one game is played. But the owners don’t want to pay full salaries for a limited number of games, which are moneymaking opportunities. Both sides have rejected the other’s offers.

“It’s going to be strange,” Angels All-Star outfielder Mike Trout told FOX Business when asked about playing with no fans. “I think any baseball is better than no baseball, so if we have to do it, we have to do it. It’s definitely something to get used to. It’s the world we’re living in right now.”

And as much as they’ve talked about fans or no fans, all of the team sports are also dealing with the health of the players with Covid-19 still around. The leagues are putting out guidelines on how to do things, social distancing and cleaning, but the team sports we’re talking about are all “contact” competitions in one way or another.

So there’s a risk to the players no matter what precautions are taken. But fans or no fans, with the money there is to be made, no doubt games will be played.

Can Sports Help?

It’s a slippery slope when any columnist writes about race relations.

But I think this is a critical juncture and that having these conversations, discussions and debates are important.

With thirteen per cent of America, sixteen per cent of the State of Florida and thirty per cent of the residents of the City of Jacksonville identifying themselves as Black or African American, if we’re not having these discussions we’re just talking at, and not with each other.

And sports can be a starting point. Teams that we all report on and cheer for are made up of different races and cultures. Players will tell you though, on a team, race isn’t an issue, it’s a meritocracy.

“Inside that team, we’re family,” former Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts said this week of race relations during his college career at Tulane and ten years in the NFL. “If you offer respect in the locker room, sometimes it changes how guys think. I have guys tell me they’re relationship with me changed their perception. So that’s good.”

“We need to keep having these discussions because the more we keep talking the more we have an understanding of different cultures,” former Jaguars Vice President Michael Huyghue added this week.

“I’m African American when I fill out a form but “black” in conversation,” he explained. “That in itself creates a separation, an instant distinction. It’s as if we’re considered outside of America like people who came here from other countries. I was born here.”

Marts agreed.

“I’m a Black-American. I have to select “African American” on forms but I was born here. Some people want to tell me I’m African but I’m not. I’m from here. I’m an American.”

“One of my coaches asked me about it last year,” Marts, also a former high school head coach and athletic director, told me this week about growing up Black in America. “He called me the other day and said ‘I wouldn’t have known anything about this.’ The more we talk to each other the better off we’ll be. I told him what it was like (to be Black in America) and he was shocked. He had no idea.”

That seemed to be the consensus among the friends I talked with this week. All men of color who have been made keenly aware their whole lives that they’re black.

“My perception of being Black in America has had my feelings all over the place,” former Jaguars defensive back and Englewood High product Rashean Mathis told me this week.

“It’s way bigger than George Floyd. It’s just the tipping point. I didn’t have empathy for George Floyd; It was much stronger than that. I literally felt myself in his place. I thought of my son in his place.”

Mathis lives in Ponte Vedra, raising his three children, including his seven-year-old son.

“I’m raising two boys, and the talks I have to have with my seven year old are heart wrenching,” Mathis said while acknowledging he supports the protests over the last week.

“Why are we marching in the streets, why are we blocking highways? Because we need to be heard,” he explained. “We’re trying to raise families and live our lives. You can’t silence truth. And what is true is that there is injustice. You can’t protest just to make everybody comfortable.”

“Most African American’s experience elements of bias on a daily basis,” Huyghue explained. “I don’t go one week without something happening that reminds me of the difference. There are stereotypes that people have and they’re always something you have to explain to your kids.”

Huyghue worked in the legal department for both the NFL and the NFL Players Association. He was the first black agent who represented a white player in the NFL. (He was my agent for twenty years) He cited an example from early in his career where his skin color impacted his work.

“The first time I was a lawyer representing the NFL,” he said. “I went into one of the hearings and the judge said ‘We’ll get started when the NFL lawyer gets here.’ I said ‘your honor, I am the NFL lawyer’. And he said ‘Well when your boss gets here we’ll get started.’ I told him I was the only one.”

It’s that kind of unspoken bias that is a reality according to Huyghue, Mathis and Marts when growing up Black in America.

“I think all black families have an understanding that you have to explain to your kids about the inequities they’ll experience with the police, in the classrooms and other places,” Huyghue said on how he has explained to his children what to expect.

“I let my kids know there are things you can and cannot do,” Marts said. “If you get pulled over you keep your hands where you can see them and you say yes sir and no sir. It’s the perception. You have to teach them. There’s no way around it.”

Several times security guards in Marts’ neighborhood have stopped and questioned his kids about being on the local basketball courts.

“They said, ‘We live here,’ Lonnie explained. “Racial profiling is wrong,” he added. “If my boys aren’t doing anything wrong, why mess with them. Why did you pick them out here?”

“I don’t think we’re acknowledging the problem yet,” Mathis said. “There are still people who have been taught generationally to think like this. Until we acknowledge the state of this country was built upon, we won’t move in the right direction.”

“We cannot fail our children,” Jaguars Owner Shad Khan said in an editorial penned this week. “Children who deserve to know they have the same opportunity to earn a living have a family and live safely — no matter the color of their skin.

Khan, who identifies himself as a person of color and as a Muslim-American, says while he can’t claim to know what it means to be a young African American today, he has been “the frequent target of prejudice, discrimination and hatred.”

He added that he has also felt the kindness and generosity of people in what he calls “the greatest nation on the planet.”

“While I am often described as “self-made,” he wrote, “The truth is I benefitted tremendously from hundreds of good and generous people early on, from all walks of life, who supported me unconditionally and contributed mightily to my realization of the American Dream.”

My friend Calvin and I worked together for over three decades. We met in the early ‘80’s, had children the same age, ate meals together, talked sports, played basketball and generally hung out during breaks at work. We often talked about how his experience, as a black man living and growing up in downtown and Northwest Jacksonville, was very different than mine.

He told me the story this week of being stopped by the police just outside of his neighborhood, walking down the street.

“A white cop and a black cop stopped me and said I looked like somebody they were looking for,” he explained. “I said to myself, ‘I wonder who I look like?’ We have to prove who we are and that’s not right for just walking down the street.”

Calvin’s story continued, “I asked the black cop, ‘Why are you stopping me, the guy you’re looking for is 5’5” and 180 lbs.! I look nothing like that! He said, ‘It’s his call’ pointing to the white cop. That’s where the police need to have some accountability to each other. Why didn’t one of those other officers get that guy off of Floyd’s neck? He’d be alive today if that happened.”

Everybody agrees that what happened to George Floyd was heinous and criminal and hopes justice will be served for Floyd and his family. Calvin believes in taking to the streets to protest but says, “The whole movement got sideways because of those agitators who promoted violence.”

It reminded him of a similar time when he was young.

“We went to Hemming Plaza in the ‘60’s to listen to H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael who were in town. We had some agitators from my neighborhood that just wanted to stir things up. Their incentive was selfish. They were looking at their own personal interest. They weren’t interested in the cause at all.”

“I think peaceful protesting is a way to get things done,” Marts agreed. “Not violence, that’s a low means of communication. Tearing up stuff or attacking the cops, that’s backwards.”

“It’s always going to be rough on the edges,” Huyghue responded when asked about protesting. “Protests are intended to shock the system. There’s no perfect way to protest. You can go back to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics. They (the protests) have value because they stop us and force us to look at things in a different way.”

Rashean’s take was a little different.

“I don’t agree with looting or rioting,” he said. “I’m a law-abiding citizen and that’s against the law. But I understand it. Some people are taking advantage of the situation; others are expressing their frustration. If you kick a dog enough, eventually he’s going to bite you. People are screaming because their parents and grandparents haven’t been heard.”

With the influence sports and famous athletes have on young people through social media, Calvin believes they can make a difference.

“The more pressure that is put on by athletes that kids look up to will cause the dialogue to start again and work toward the changes that we need,” he said. “The difference will be made when black leaders and athletes keep bringing attention what’s going on.”

Mathis is one of those athletes who are leading the conversation, trying to effect change.

“I spoke to the Vanderbilt football team today,” he said. “I told those guys, black and white, that they have to have these conversations together. They will be the ones to affect some sort of change. Change will not happen without both sides going together. We need white America to stand with us. We need more. We need to do our part as a black society, but we need white America to go with us.”

I tried to get Calais Campbell to add his voice to the discussion and was disappointed I couldn’t reach him. He’s the kind of guy you hoped would stay in your city after he retired from playing and I told him so many times during his tenure with the Jaguars. He could have an impact on our city that’s always been divided by roads and rivers, oftentimes along racial lines. He tweeted this week:

“The ballot is more powerful than the bullet! Put people in office that can and will create legislation that will make a difference. And most importantly do it locally because the federal govt can only do so much! City and state govt is just as important.”

It’s one of the reasons I was so disappointed when Calais was traded to the Ravens. As the Walter Payton Man of the Year in the NFL for 2019, Campbell’s work in the community is unparalleled.

Mathis believes there is a lot of work to be done, more than has ever been done before.

“We have made progress for sure, there’s been a lot of change, but the majority are still suffering,” He explained. “I acknowledge there has been change. I mean, I live in Marsh Landing. But we can’t let the change we’ve already made outweigh the fact that the problem that still exists.”

Perhaps somebody like Leonard Fournette can pick up the mantle locally and continue the work players like Mathis and Campbell have started. I’ve seen the charity work he’s done here and it’s heartfelt. He’s inviting people to join him in a peaceful march this coming week.

I’m sure there are a lot of people who would love to join him but would like to know who “they” are in this tweet from last Wednesday:

“They’ll never understand until it’s one of there (their) kids or friends . . .. “

Because if the conversation starts off with “us” and “them” we’ll never get to “we.”