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Packers choose to remain in locker room during playing of national anthem, after a summer of discussing social justice

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

MINNEAPOLIS - Boarded-up window frames remain along Nicollet Mall, a throughway of what should be a bustling shopping and social district in downtown Minneapolis. On Sunday, a season-opening NFL game day, the 10-minute walk from Nordstrom Rack — featuring a large portrait of George Floyd behind one of the store's few intact panes — to U.S. Bank Stadium was a largely solitary endeavor. The light-rail train sliding past the eerie, echoing 73,000-seat home venue was the only active noise. There was no music, no tailgate, no din of humanity.

It seemed fitting, then, that the months-long private conversations among the members of the Green Bay Packers came to a quiet end shortly before noon.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - SEPTEMBER 13: The Green Bay Packers bench is empty as the the team remained in the locker room for the National Anthem as a gesture to bring attention to the fight for social justice, before the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

While the Vikings recognized the Floyd family, played “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and the national anthem, the Packers elected to remain the locker room as one entity, out of sight.

It was a decision the team reached Saturday before heading to Minneapolis after they weighed the impact doing so.

In the executive suite in U.S. Bank Stadium, Mark Murphy was struck by the empty sideline.

“I was able to watch a little bit of 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' and that seemed pretty powerful to me,” the Packers president and CEO told PackersNews.com after Green Bay's 43-34 victory over the Vikings. “But it was very noticeable not having our entire team there. Particularly for the national anthem.”

The internal conversations within the Packers organization about social justice issues have been heavy since Floyd died in police custody May 25. Packers receiver Davante Adams said it was about keeping the focus square on the topic of social justice issues and police brutality.

“We wanted to make sure we controlled the narrative of what happened,” Adams said after the game. “All the extra details of what took place inside the locker room, we’ll keep that for our football team. We just wanted to make sure we stayed together, kept the focus on what it was. You get out there and guys kneeling, guys not, whatever, it just gets hijacked. We didn’t want anyone to take off with it and give a new meaning to what we were trying to do. We decided to stay inside as a team.”

With the stark panorama of an empty sideline in front of him Sunday, Murphy said there was no anxiousness or trepidation about what that meant on the broader level.

“I feel like we’re on the right side of this,” he said. “I mean, it’s trite, but I think history will prove us to be on the right side. And the other thing is, the reality, the way our country is – I hate to say, we’ve never been more divided. At least in my lifetime. And no matter what we do you’re going to upset certain people, certain groups. That’s just the reality. And so I think you really have to educate yourself and look deep down and trust that you’re making the right decisions.”

Whether it be via text message or Zoom meetings with position groups and coaches — or even public social media interactions — Packers players have been opening up to one another on a level that has stretched far deeper than the bowling trips, rented movie theaters and team dinners that coalesced the 2019 team.

“I’ve dealt with it personally in multiple places,” Will Redmond said of social injustice in late August. “To me, it was a touchy topic and I decided to speak up. For me, I just wanted to shine a light to my teammates, no matter who you are — rookie, third-year guy, fifth-year guy, 10-year guy, we have a voice so let’s use it. Now, I’m just continuing to try to stay on a path to try to lead guys from my hometown, try to speak. A lot of stuff comes from when guys don’t really know, so I just try to voice my opinion and try to let people know what’s going on in our world, what’s going on lately, as much as possible.”

Whether intentional or not, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur helped facilitate conversations in person when the team returned to Lambeau Field in late July. He surprised his team by repositioning lockers, so instead of players being placed by position group they were set up as offense-defense-offense, putting players together who may not have normally interacted.

The impact of that depended on the individual, but multiple players told PackersNews.com that decision helped foster a stronger team bond as they worked through many difficult conversations.

“In the locker room everyday I think you hear somebody speaking about something that’s racial injustice, kind of that category or genre of conversation and just in different parts of the locker room,” offensive lineman Billy Turner said in mid-August. “Obviously, there’s a lot of guys, there’s a lot of staff and personnel and there’s always a conversation around it, which is good because spreading that word and spreading that message and keeping that genre alive is going to be something that helps us progress and move forward and possibly take a couple steps forward in this fight. But the question is going to be, as we move forward throughout this season, are guys still going to be able to take that stride forward and put that front foot forward to make a difference in that category.”

All of those private conversations led to the decision to remain in the locker room, which was perhaps the most impactful of their public statements. For many of the Packers, it was thoughtful, heartfelt and necessary — but ultimately still just symbolic.  

“I wouldn’t even say it’s a big thing, but I like to call it a problem in America, so people like me who have the platform and have the voice that people will listen to, I feel like it’s imperative for people like me to step up and do my part,” Adams said Aug. 3. He was part of a powerful player-led June 4 social media video, which sparked a significant change in dialogue from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“It’s not just about the tweets or the videos or stuff like that, it’s the actual things that we can do.”

Not every act is public, but Turner started a project called “Public Immunity” which he said will address and help social issues through his artistic lens. Redmond went home to Memphis, Tennessee to give out free meals June 13. Defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster connected with a handful of prominent Chicago athletes to buy a building in a food desert and commission its demolition to rebuild it as a grocer.

“I was sort of stuck in a place like, what can I do?” said Lancaster, who recalled his thoughts while watching television on June 2. “There were riots in Chicago and I was like, there’s so much going on and I was like, what can I do to make change? I was really struggling. I was texting other teammates, telling them where I come from, wanting to get other people’s points of view.”

The Packers have been a bonded group on this topic, which players and staff say has been strengthened by the very public support of Murphy. A former player who is a powerful figure in the league, Murphy has been ardent in backing any message the players have chosen to convey. He said the club will work to help register as many voters as possible before opening the Johnsonville Tailgate Village as a polling place and working with Green Bay, Ashwaubenon and Brown County police departments to purchase body cameras.

As for what is next for the Packers, they head home for the season opener in an empty Lambeau Field against the Detroit Lions. Murphy felt any pregame messaging will continue to be discussed on a regular basis but echoed player leadership that “the players want to see action. It’s the old saying, ‘We want to move from protest to progress,’ and that’s really the most important thing here is that we start to make progress on some of these issues. They’re not political. It’s just basic human rights.”