Most of Justin Britt’s hometown didn’t much care for his pioneering gesture in race relations. But his high school coach said people don’t understand who he is.
Most of the people in his hometown weren’t happy with what Seahawks C Justin Britt, son of an Army veteran, did during the national anthem. The town of Lebanon is in the southwest Missouri county of Laclede, which voted 80 percent for Donald Trump in the presidential election.
“Where we’re located, the culture is very patriotic,” Will Christian, Britt’s coach at Lebanon High, said by phone Wednesday. “It is important to me as well. The culture-of-patriotism nerve was hit. No question about that.”
But Christian saw something more when Britt put himself among the first white NFL players this preseason to support by public gesture black teammates in protesting social injustice during NFL pre-game ceremonies.
“I believe wholeheartedly that Justin’s position was that he still stood for our country, but also wanted to show support for a teammate’s battle,” he said. “A lot of people, including myself, would not want to get in the middle of these very hot topics. He really stuck his neck out.”
But as soon as Britt put his right hand on the left shoulder of the seated Bennett, son of a Navy veteran, prior to the Aug. 18 game against the Vikings at the Clink, he knew he had done the right thing.
“Mike said it was an emotional moment for him, but it was for me too,” Britt said Tuesday after practice. “It wasn’t easy. I felt anxious, but I also felt the power of positivity coming through me, through him.
“It was a unique moment in my life. It’s something I hope has meaning.”
To advocates of anthem protests as a statement for social justice, the meaning was clear — things can start to move when the unaffected pitch in with the affected. But what was Britt saying to the home folks and others who resent political stands in America’s playpens?
“There will always be people who dislike you and what you’re doing,” he said. “I would say to those who are negative, and also to those who are positive: Don’t have a one-track mind. Be open to both sides. Only then can you see what’s going on.”
Another way to put the same notion was offered long ago by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
Britt’s recent signing of a three-year contract extension worth up to $27 million suggests he is functioning well. He is the leader of the O-line, the team’s most vulnerable unit. According to Christian, standing for the vulnerable is in keeping with what he saw from Britt as he grew into a man and a leader in high school.
“His leadership always displayed a mindset of standing up for the little guy,” he said. “When you’re in high school, 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, you can be the town bully, or the hero. He always had a humble side and stood up for people.
“He became a leader on our team and looked up to. But sticking his neck out . . . I don’t think I saw that. What I saw as a big characteristic was being all about his team and teammates. If a teammate has an issue, he’s right there for him.”
An online poll by the Lebanon Daily Record drew 741 responses by Monday to the question of whether the reader agreed with Britt’s gesture. More than 62 percent did not. In a column by Vahe Gregorian in the Kansas City Star Friday, Britt’s older brother, Chris, a middle school teacher and football coach for Lebanon’s seventh-grade team, cautioned against stereotypes, for fans and players.
“There are some people who fulfill (the stereotypes), but a lot of people here are just trying to figure the world out,” he said. “You can’t put everyone in a box. That would probably make it easy for everybody, to put them in a box of some sort. The hard part is opening that up.”
Britt doesn’t fit in a box. He has made multiple visits to the JBLM military base south of Tacoma. When military groups visit team headquarters, he makes time for them.
“I grew up a military kid,” citing Kentucky, Alaska and Kansas as states he has called home during his father’s assignments. “It’s never been about disrespecting veterans or the flag, and what they represent.
“The flag represents liberty for all. Those words are getting lost in translation. We’re getting away from what our ‘why’ is.”
Britt had a good look at the loss in translation at the University of Missouri from 2009-13. Campus racial tension had grown steadily. After he graduated and was taken by the Seahawks in the second round (64th overall) in the 2014 draft, Mizzou made national headlines when the football team joined many students in November 2015 protesting the university’s negligence regarding episodes of racism.
More than 30 black players threatened a boycott if the university president was was not removed, a move supported by head coach Gary Pinkel, the former University of Washington assistant under Don James. The football protestors said if president Tim Wolfe wasn’t sacked, they would sit out the next game. Stunningly, he resigned within a day.
“This is not — I repeat, not — the way change should come about,” Wolfe said in his resignation letter. “Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. Use my resignation to heal and start talking again.”
Wolfe’s belated awareness is the driver behind the NFL player protests — listening, caring, talking.
“I think the greatest impact on Justin’s mindset were the events at UM,” Christian said. “I can only speak from the outside, but the campus had internal issues, and the team found unity through those things.
“At the end of Britt’s time, things were pretty hot. Those issues put a sensitivity in his heart.”
In 2017, the sensitivity manifested in a breakthrough at the NFL level.
“Mike believes in equality, and so do I,” Britt said. “He and I were having discussions about it, then Charlottesville happened. Mike said white players should join in, and it was kind of a no-brainer.
“Supporting Mike . . . he’s pretty much a brother.”
Regarding participation in the protests, the brain has been a secondary organ. Guts were the primary requirement.
The brain enters play with the understanding that the flag was a symbol of rebellion and independence, and the protests are about the unfulfilled promises of that rebellion and independence.
How about the final five words of the Pledge of Allegiance, at one time a mandatory gesture that began every day in many schools.
” . . . liberty and justice for all.”