By Dan Bernstein
NFL coaches try as hard as they can to say nothing. It’s what they have evolved to do in an industry that has seen winning elevate the likes of Bill Belichick and Nick Saban to exalted status, aping their blandness as standard practice.
So when a weekly teleconference gathers in its pro forma ritual, being boring is expected, and anything interesting is a pleasant surprise. That the words of a coach could be considered important is not something for which we often prepare, and it’s why the Saints’ Sean Payton deserves credit for not sticking to the script on Tuesday.
He had much to say in the wake of the latest mass shooting of innocents in the United States, knowing that his position and platform could reach a significant and different audience. Unlike the shameful and villainous political party that refuses to acknowledge even a time or place to discuss a more reasonable gun policy, Payton was compelled to make his time that very place. He used Twitter to share some grim gun-death statistics in the morning, and was asked about it later in the day.
“It’s very clear,” Payton said. “And if it pisses people off, it’s tough.”
“The current protocol is not working. The current system is not working, and the madness is when you go years and years and years and say (things don’t need to change)… the current policies and thoughts are flawed. You try to draw parallels throughout our world, and it’s hard to. It’s hard to find other countries like that, and here we are, as educated and smart and forward-thinking as we think we are, and yet, it’s broken, and it’s obvious.”
He chose his words deliberately and expressed them with care, clearly having given the subject the kind of thought that merited every bit of his attentiveness.
“I believe this in my heart,” he said, “We as a society owe it to our children. We need to be better that way.”
Why such truth could possibly anger any but the most irrational on the farthest fringe notwithstanding, it matters enough to Payton that he stepped out of the protective cocoon of football to issue another rallying cry that needs to be heard. He did so before, after former Saints defensive end Will Smith was shot and killed in April of 2016.
“It was a large caliber gun — a .45,” he told USA Today at that time. “We could go online and get ten of them, and have them shipped to our house tomorrow. I don’t believe that was the intention when they allowed for the right for citizens to bear arms. Two hundred years from now, they’re going to look back and say ‘What was that madness about?’”
Just Tuesday the NFL and the players’ union released a joint statement that announced a meeting of selected owners, players and league officials regarding “the important issue of social activism by NFL players,” spurred by the growth of protests over racial injustice. The cynics among us may read this as an attempt at public relations control that will ultimately allow the NFL to co-opt and dilute the message, abstracting vital resistance into a meaningless branding campaign. After all, that’s what the league has done with the issue of domestic violence.
The more hopeful, however, want to see an awakening that respects players as informed and concerned American citizens doing what they can to make their world better and fairer for those less privileged. If a more socially responsible environment also means more coaches like Sean Payton speaking their hearts and minds about misguided public policy that affects us, that’s all the better.