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Packers cancel practice after social injustice protests: 'It's hard to focus on football'

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

GREEN BAY - Dressed for practice and sporting a few days’ worth of growth around his jawline, Matt LaFleur gripped the sides of a lectern and looked directly into a camera for the second time in a week to deliver a message of pain – and ultimately hope – on behalf of the players of the Green Bay Packers.

“This is not necessarily something that you can prepare for,” the head coach said Thursday. “But, I think, just if you have a good heart and you know right from wrong and we all see a lot of stuff that is going on in the world that is not right, people not getting the same opportunities or being treated or persecuted based on the color of their skin, that’s not right. For me it’s easy to stand up here and talk about what’s not right.”

LaFleur elected to cancel practice following a team meeting in which coaches and players had extended discussions about police brutality and systemic racism after the shooting Sunday of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey. On Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers had each declined to play games in an impromptu protest.

The second-year coach, who was the only member of the organization to address the media in a Zoom call, said the players did not ask for the day off but he felt it wasn’t right to take to Ray Nitschke Field as scheduled.

“The stuff that’s going on is much greater than the game of football,” LaFleur said. “I think our guys want to play. But at the same time, they want to focus some of their efforts on, again, making society a better place. I mean, this is a humanity issue at the end of the day. More so than anything else.”

Instead, the morning was devoted to a discussion about what he and the team could do going forward in the arena of social justice.

“We’re all hoping that some good can come out of all these conversations and that we can see significant change in the world and in people’s thinking and how we treat one another not only as Americans but as humans,” LaFleur said.

In lieu of practice, the club screened the documentary “13th” for interested players. The documentary focuses on how the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution helped propagate mass incarceration of Black citizens.

"Not one guy said that they didn’t want to practice," LaFleur said. "That didn’t even come up. It was more or less we were having some really long conversations. When you feel that emotion in the room, it’s hard to focus on football. It is emotionally draining for everybody in that room, so I made the decision that, hey, we’re not going to go today. I just didn’t think it was right."

"That team meeting was so powerful,” tweeted rookie outside linebacker Tipa Galea’i. “Brilliant ideas brought forward to spark a change and bring justice in our communities. We are fighting the greatest fight ever known to man & this fight is obviously nowhere close to being done. #BLACKLIVESMATTER"

Regarding Friday’s practice, LaFleur said another morning meeting will be held to continue the conversation.

Packers players took to social media Thursday, with safety Adrian Amos tweeting, "I’m not here solely for your entertainment. I’m a Black Man. No I won’t shut up when it comes to my community and the problems we face as a whole.. if that bothers you. Then don’t watch me don’t follow me don’t support me.. if you are not here to help then leave. I will be ok"

In messages on Instagram that lasted nearly two minutes, tight end Jace Sternberger encouraged people to have discussions about race: “Have the conversation about everything that’s going on in today’s world," he said. "Really, really get uncomfortable with it because you’d be surprised how many, not just family members, but people that you consider in your circle who don’t think the same way you do about racism. They don’t think the same way they do about other people. That’s a problem. It's one of those things; not everybody has to like everything you do but I feel like racism is something either you’re all in or you’re not.”

Sternberger also called on fellow athletes and influential people to push anti-racism messages across their platforms.

“Now is not the time to be silent on something like this.”

Earlier in the day, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling tweeted "Black Lives Still Matter," one minute after the team initially postponed the practice Thursday morning.

Rookie running back AJ Dillon tweeted, "This can’t keep happening every other week. Is disheartening. Real change needs to happen. We are scared for our lives, that’s not how life is meant to be lived. Stand with us everyday not just game day!"

Wide receiver Reggie Begelton tweeted, "In order to make change, it starts at the top. But we will provide the ripple to make it happen. Every relationship requires a mature, open, and raw means of communication. Don’t be afraid to have your feathers ruffled. In the end, you may learn something that’s life altering."

Teammate Lucas Patrick affirmed that, tweeting “I stand now and say, I was ignorant and recognize I benefited from a broken system that was made for people that looked like myself. This is about humanity and nothing else! #BlackLivesMatter is all of our responsibilities to fight for equality as human beings!”

Such statements were just a sampling of the emotion felt by many within Lambeau Field.

"That’s real," LaFleur said. "And a lot of our players are feeling like that. I 100% support what they’re going through. And, I just want to be a positive influence and use whatever I can do to help. Again, everybody should be treated equally. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, how much money you have, what your race is. It’s problematic to me that unfortunately within our world that not everybody sees it that way. And so we’ve got to do whatever we can to help change that. And I think it’s not going to be easy. This is something that’s been going on for years and years and years. How do we change a way of thinking as a society?”

The Packers were one of seven teams to cancel practices Thursday. On Tuesday the Detroit Lions did not practice.

On June 4, the Packers released a social justice video and the organization and President/CEO Mark Murphy pledged to contribute $500,000 to Wisconsin social justice groups. As for what the discussions and actions his team has taken can bring about, LaFleur acknowledged that is something that may take time to crystallize.

"It’s such an enormous issue, and I think sometimes when you look it, it can be overwhelming," he said. "I can speak for myself in this matter, when you don’t know as much as you would like to or how you can make a significant impact, it does seem overwhelming. That’s why you’ve got to be willing to research and get information, and we’ve been talking about this for a while now as a team. I think there are some things we can do in the short term to continue to bring light to some of these issues. I was really proud of the video our guys put out a while back and just making sure that we use our platform and use our voice to hopefully influence enough people to make those changes.”