With current political climate and an increasing number of athletic protests against social inequalities, the interplay between sports and public policy are two entities that are becoming increasingly intertwined, according to former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Jim Hackett, president and CEO of Ford Motor Company and former interim director of University of Michigan athletics. The two discussed this intersection and more to University faculty and students Tuesday afternoon. 

Since September 2016, the NFL has been the topic of controversy within much of the political sphere, as former NFL player Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem to protest social and political tension nationwide. Other athletes have followed suit, leading President Donald Trump and other politicians to denounce the symbolic protest of kneeling. NFL teams like the Saints, Ravens, Jaguars and multiple individual players from teams throughout the league, have been controversially contributing to the cause originally evoked by Kaepernick.

Hackett and Tagliabue spoke about kneeling boding the question of whether or not NFL players should be given the platform to voice their opinion on political matters while on the field.

Tagliabue, who served as commissioner of the NFL from 1989 to 2006, expanded the league from 28 to 32 teams and was heavily active in social justice movements. Tagliabue moved Superbowl XXVII from Arizona after the state refused to establish a state holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and has also been honored for his work with LBGTQ rights group Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays. 

“It’s complicated,” Tagliabue said on the connection between sports and public policy. “Sports have had an enormous impact on diversity and inclusion and on our relationships with each other — race, color, creed, etc. Athletes and sports can have an enormous positive effect on communities; we are all woven together in the best of circumstances that is the melting that that is our society.”

Hackett served as interim director of Michigan athletics from Oct. 31, 2014, to March 11, 2016, and served on the Ford School Committee from 2006 to 2017, making his involvement in sports and policy extensive. Hackett recalled his time on and off the field.

“There is no line between racism and patriotism, they are just your teammates,” Hackett said. “The highest percent of participation on a team is when you don’t think of yourself, you think of the person next to you. My dream was that the young people on campus would understand the underpinnings of diversity and inclusion meant when it was not mediated and was highly controversial.”

Tagliabue emphasized the fine line between protest and action. He questioned what societal change this protest could enact and how players can move forward with their message.

“I think you’ve got to fight,” Tagliabue said. “But you have to do it in the right way. If your goal is to galvanize the public in support of a point of view that you’re advocating, you need to pay attention to not only those who are already with you, but those who are not yet convinced. That means you have to strike a balance, you have to understand what it takes to grow your constituency. You need to recognize the limits of a sports institution. However, leadership is at all levels at the institution.”

Public Policy graduate student Jai Singletary also emphasized the link between social justice movements and athletics, and believes it beneficial to continue this conversation.

“By tapping into the social aspect of what’s going on in the country and how it relates to the athletes not just within the NFL but within the sports world, protesting and voicing their opinions gives a little bit of insight about where protests and social change will come within the sports arena,” Singletary said. 

Traci Carson, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Public Health, said she attended the event to expand her knowledge of the debate surrounding kneeling.

“This is a topic that I have been going back and forth on, and I think each individual regards the topic of kneeling and the First Amendment right differently, and I think it is really important to ask why they are doing it, and to get that individual’s response and not generalize everybody into one group; it is their choice to or to not kneel,” Carson said.

LSA senior Kyle Lefkowitz, however, questioned what comes next after kneeling for the anthem. 

“This is such an important platform for the players — allowing them to be able to fight for what they believe. Now we just have to continue with actions and not just words,” Lefkowitz said.

Tagliabue later urged the students to try to understand why people protest. He believes it is imperative to acknowledge why people are fighting and, even if the president demands a halt in the discussion of policy, people continue the conversation.

“You won’t gain respect if you think that ‘the only solution is mine,’ ” Tagliabue said. “You have to understand who these people are. Everyone should understand that we do have a First Amendment right in America, and that the government should stay the hell out of regulating speech. You should be able to say what you think. He cannot shut us down. That is not America.”

Tagliabue left University students with advice on how this controversy can teach values and unite the next generation.

“Men and women are better prepared in society to be leaders than ever before. We need to make sure they have the research and the institutions to give them the opportunity to do what they’re doing in an environment where celebrity is not always an asset some people learned in last presidential election. Celebrity is not the key to the kingdom. Hard work, good ideas and institutional support is the key to the kingdom.”

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