BY Art Thiel 04:17PM 08/30/2017

Thiel: The awakening of Seahawks’ Justin Britt

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.

Seahawks offensive line after clinching the NFC West title at the Clink: Starters Germain Ifedi (left), George Fant (third from left); kneeling, Garry Gilliam, Justin Britt and Mark Glowinski. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

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.

What promises?

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.”


YourThoughts

  • Effzee

    “Freedom of speech and thought matters, especially when it is speech and thought with which we disagree. The moment the majority decides to destroy people for engaging in thought it dislikes, thought crime becomes a reality.” – Ben Shapiro

    • art thiel

      One of the greatest warnings about threats to speech.

      • Effzee

        Note the distinct lack of detractor comments when its an article about the white guy.

        • roger_lococco

          Why, yes. Play the race card.

          Now, you do realize the rest of us also have free speech rights, correct? And the rest of us can disagree with Bennett, Britt, Baldwin and the rest of the Look At Me crowd and not patronize these poor, oppressed professional athletes, correct?

          And that we can certainly find other things to do with our time than watch the Seahawks – or any professional football at all – correct?

          You do understand we can do that no matter what their skin color is, right? Right?

          Good.
          Now we’re clear on the matter.

          • Effzee

            Well of course all of those things are correct. That goes without saying. You’ll notice that when the article was about Bennett or Kaepernick, there are 30, 40, or more comments. But there are crickets when the article is about Britt’s support. You go ahead and boycott the Seahawks because you disagree with their stance for equality. Do it. Enjoy your football-less world.

          • art thiel

            On this topic, effzee, there will never be crickets.

          • art thiel

            Back when Reds owner Marge Schott said Hitler was OK but he went too far, I wrote a column saying she should not be punished in any way. Not only for reasons of free speech, but because I want her and others who share her views out in broad daylight, not in the shadows.

            I still believe that. I want to know, Roger, the people who think these athletes are claiming to be poor and oppressed. It tells me a lot, and I like good information.

  • John Brown

    I thought Kaep’s reasons for his protest last year were lame and poorly articulated. Then again, same went for most of his interviews about football. Bennett has been very clear on his reasons, and though I would never sit for our anthem, I get his protest. My hope is that he sees a change that will again bring him to his feet for our country.

    • Steed

      I agree.

      Kaeps problems are not due to his not standing for the anthem, it’s his other knucklehead behavior, like suggesting that people who work for/cover the NFL have “Stockholm syndrome” as if the NFL is a criminal gang holding hostages. And the juvenile wearing of socks with police pigs on them.

      • art thiel

        My point exactly.

    • art thiel

      Unfortunately, you’re right about Kap. In attempting to navigate the American minefield of race, it’s not enough to have one’s heart in the right place. A brain and and a plan is critical, because missteps and misstatements will be used to denigrate and dismiss.

  • John Brown

    As for Britt….there’s a teammate. GO HAWKS!!!

  • StephenBody

    As Paul Newman famously said, ““Being on President Nixon’s enemies list was the highest single honor I’ve ever received.” Consider The Source…If Britt’s detractors see him as some sort of turncoat, rest assured that many more people had him just go up considerably in their estimation. Good on Justin Britt. If character was easy, more people would have it.

    • art thiel

      Whether anyone agrees with his principles, Britt seems to be held in high regard by the people who’ve shared their thoughts with me. He’s open to saying he needs to learn things about race and culture, which makes him rare because he knows he doesn’t know it all.

  • Jamo57

    Art thank you for the thoughtful, nuanced reporting that this issue deserves. Great read.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, Jamo.

  • roger_lococco

    Keep pounding that keyboard, Art.

    Why cover just sports when there’s social justice virtue signalling to be pushed?

    – edit
    By the way, you might want to take a look at Mizzou’s cratering enrollment numbers before holding them up as some sort of example to be followed.

    • Steed

      “A good example is worth following even if the crowd doesn’t follow it with you.”

      Steed 2017

    • art thiel

      Feel free to take a look at the cratering numbers at many brick-and-mortar schools. Lots of them are in trouble for reasons having nothing to do with race.

      Has it occurred to you that Mizzou’s cratering numbers have something to do with its history of discrimination years before the high-profile events brought them to national light?

  • tor5

    Thanks for providing some context to the backlash Britt can expect back home. Makes me respect his gesture even more. I don’t really like the sitting-for-the-anthem thing, but I’ve evolved, and I get it as much as I can. I even felt a little bit represented by Britt, like “I’m not gonna sit, but my eyes are open, I see the problems, and I’m on your side.”

    • John M

      Well said, tor5. Having spent 4 years in central and southern Missouri and attended school there, I have to say my respect for Britt’s actions has definitely risen . . .

      • art thiel

        Britt is acutely aware of his home-state politics, but it is far secondary in his considerations of action.

    • art thiel

      You have just explained why it was important for white players to participate. It allows white fans to leave the we/they division when it comes to race. The gesture is not meant to be a solution, but a way forward.

  • DAWG
    • art thiel

      Thanks for sharing.

  • Steed

    Respecting veterans and feeling gratitude for their service does not mean that veterans are the sole arbiters of what is right, wrong, or appropriate in our society. They each have a single voice in the conversation, like all of us do. No more and no less.

    As for those who take offense on behalf of veterans, to try to stop behavior or discourse they disagree with, they are in the same group as those “scoundrels” who “last refuge*” is patriotism. That doesn’t mean patriotism, or standing for the flag is bad, it means those who mis-use those things to shut people down are scoundrels.

    (*Samuel Johnson 1775)

    • art thiel

      Using the sacrifice of veterans as a rationale to dismiss protest is a false premise. Many if not most veterans understand the principle, and also a lot have experienced the same sort of social injustice for which redress is sought. They often are among the first to understand when police and government go off the rails.

  • Paul Harmening

    This is Arts web site. What he chooses to publish is his business. As a wordsmith, one of the best in the business.

    BUT…

    I don’t have to click on if I don’t want to.

    Sadly, after a couple decades of reading and enjoying Art’s stuff, I’m loosing interest because of his insisting that political/social issues belong on the sports page.

    As I said, it’s Art’s right (as well as Bennett et al) to do that as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution that has it’s Stars and Stripes banner flying overhead that I wave daily on my flag pole in my front yard.

    Not easy to do for me. I’ve somehow managed to hang on despite last year’s starting with the Kapernick thing up until now. But, it’s getting to be too much. I want pure sports when I click on to sports sites or watch the games. I need the getaway. I need it to remain pure. I get enough of the inundated fake political/social news garbage elsewhere in my business all day long. Especially since it is part of my business.

    Time for me to move on. I’ve said it before. This time I mean it

    Goodbye ):

    • Effzee

      “Sports” has never been pure. If you’ve diluted yourself enough to think otherwise over the years, then you could continue to do so. It’s not what other people do, it’s how you react to it. Enjoy your football-less world.

      • art thiel

        A lot of people use drugs and alcohol to escape. My hope is that escaping through sports is at least less harmful.

    • John M

      Hey Paul, sorry this column couldn’t be the “escape” your gentle soul needed at the end of the day. But it isn’t just Art, social justice issues are important in this area and to the Seahawks and to me. So go tell it on the mountain . . .

      • art thiel

        A number of readers feel as Paul does. I feel bad that they can’t hold contradictory thoughts at the same time.

    • art thiel

      Paul, would you walk out of a restaurant if it was serving someone whose politics you didn’t care for? Or are you there for the food, the view, the ambience?

      Your desire for purity is understandable, but it’s as naive as wanting a child to grow up without exposure to life’s cruelties.

      You’re still welcome, Paul, because there’s no place in big-time national sports where you can hide.

  • Margo Jodyne Dills

    Great article, Art. Thank you. Need more like this.

    • art thiel

      Glad you took time to say so.