They're protesting the NFL by bettering their community

Mitchell Chance plays checkers with Raegan Jones, 10, at Carroll Park on Sunday. Chance, a lifelong NFL fan, has decided not to watch football this year.

During the Eagles kickoff Sunday afternoon, more than two dozen black men — all lifelong NFL fans — palled around with neighborhood kids in West Philadelphia’s Carroll Park.

Some played checkers. (Click. Click. Click. King me!) Others gently sparred with tweens who were just as interested in wearing puffy red boxing mitts as they were in learning how to jab. (Be careful now, baby, so you don’t fall.)

And every hour on the hour, an African beat called the young ‘uns to a literacy circle, where brave elementary-schoolers read aloud to all the men from picture books of their choosing.

It was quite a glorious afternoon. But what made this Sunday extra-remarkable was that it was week four of the NFL’s regular season and not one of these dudes so much as checked a game score. In fact, none of them has watched a Monday night, Thursday night, or Sunday football game since the season started almost a month ago.

Camera icon Raymond W. Holman Jr.
Block by Block Black Captains exercise with children in Carroll Park.

These black men, like many full-blooded American males, have a deep-rooted, if not complicated, relationship with the National Football League. But, they said, when not one team picked up former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick — who sparked controversy last year for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality — they officially had had enough.

And they stopped watching. Period.

“Once I realized the sport didn’t care about me or my community, and they were so blatant about it, it resonated with me that I needed to make a change,” said Carl Tone Jones, 43, of North Philadelphia. Jones helped cofound Block by Block Black Captains, the West Philly group  that hosted Sunday’s family-centric game-day alternative. Jones said they would continue each week. And when the temp drops below 35 degrees, they will move indoors to a location still to be determined.

“So instead of just sitting in the house in front of the TV for hours and hours, I’m actually out here trying to make a positive difference in my community,” Jones said.

Like magic, hours lost in front of the television, drinking beer and eating high-sodium hot wings are, well, back. Not only that, the men report improved moods, especially on Sunday nights.

“We want to redefine that energy and push it into something more positive,” said Eric K. “Brother Shomari” Grimes, 52, a part-time lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and regular host on 96.1 WURD-FM who is part of the Block by Block Black Captains contingent. “There are different ways to channel that aggression creatively and with family.”

So what happens when you aren’t scheduling your life around football, obsessing over scores, and trying to get over a foul mood when your team looses? You become more engaged in family life. You become more aware. You are fully present.

“On Sundays when I made dinner with my kids, the game was always in the background; I know I wasn’t  paying attention all the time,” said Adam Tinkler, 36, of South Philly, father of a 14-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl and a lifelong  49ers fan.

“Now we are talking bit more, ” Tinkler said.  “We are doing a lot more things together. The bond is getting stronger. At the end of the day, that’s more important than any game.”

See what I mean?

It’s hard to say how politics has impacted viewership of NFL games and/or its bottom line this season, but the racially charged repercussions are felt on both sides of the racial divide.

Last week, DirecTV, the provider of the NFL Sunday Ticket Package, decided it would allow customers to cancel their  $69.99 (and up) monthly tickets. The majority of these particular fans were offended at the sight of players — many of them black men — who knelt, sat, or linked arms during the national anthem.

But the black NFL fans I know have been torn over the Kaepernick drama since the end of last season. When this NFL season rolled around and Kaepernick still hadn’t found a home, disappointment in the NFL among black fans was at an all-time high. The concussion scandal was one thing, they said. And the fact that NFL players who committed domestic abuse were barely given a slap on the wrist was another.

But the issue of whether an American has the right to peacefully protest a song replete with racist undertones was the final straw.

That said, the love of football is real. Many have kept watching. Their not watching football, they argue, will not impact the NFL’s bottom line. If you are going to protest, they say, hit them in the pockets. If not, you’re just wasting your time.

Understood.

However, those who did give up watching professional football said they have no interest in hurting the NFL. Their peaceful protests, they said, are about their self-worth and standing up for what they believe in, not the NFL’s coffers.

Then, almost two weeks ago, President Trump referred to NFL players who knelt during the national anthem as “sons of b-s” and called on owners to fire them. In the week after the president’s remarks, some team owners showed solidarity with their players; Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones took a knee, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie locked arms with his players. Still, the Block by Block Black Captains said, those acts are minuscule considering  that NFL owners were among the largest donors to Trump’s presidential campaign.

Thus, their resolve to continue with their quiet protests has become even stronger.

“Dedicating all of this time and energy to an entity that doesn’t have my best interest at heart just wasn’t good for me,” said Russell Walker, a 36-year-old avid Eagles fan who spent six years in the U.S. Army, two of them in Iraq.

Camera icon RAYMOND W. HOLMAN
Army veteran Russell Walker, in West Philadelphia’s Carroll Park, says “Dedicating all of this time and energy to an entity that doesn’t have my best interest at heart just wasn’t good for me.”

Walker led the children on a run twice around Carroll Park and through a few yoga stretches.

“It’s not about hurting the NFL; it’s about taking care of me,” he said.

Taking a stand hasn’t been easy. For many, the self-imposed no-football rule means a truncated social life. That means no tailgating, no fantasy football leagues, no hanging out at sports bars with the boys, no more debating plays on Facebook, no more yelling at SportsCenter.

Michael Major has been an Eagles fan for 30 of his 35 years. This year, Major dropped all three of his fantasy football leagues, and he stopped following ESPN and all other forms of sports news on Twitter.

“I can’t even debate on Facebook about it anymore,” Major said. “There was a play a few weeks ago when [Jake Elliott] kicked a winning field goal for the Eagles and everyone lost their mind. … It would have been nice to see that.”

But that’s only what he’s lost.

In the last month, Major said, he’s upped his exercise, now going on 10- to 15-mile bike rides each Sunday. He also spends time cleaning up his Point Breeze neighborhood. And, he says, he has more time to date.

“Honestly,” Major mused. “I’ve enjoyed using my time doing something better. The things I didn’t have time to do before. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. There are times when I forgot that.”

For more information on the Block by Block Black Captains, email: blackCaptains215@gmail.com or call Atiba Kwesi at  215-888-3086.