NASHVILLE Wednesday’s Tennessee Titans media availability was unlike any other that has been done. In the (rarely) wise words of Drake, nothing was the same.

Safety Kevin Byard, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and linebacker Rashaan Evans each gave rational, researched and passionate responses over a collective hour on questions about race relations in America.

Not one of them flinched.

This is what the sports landscape looks like amidst a global pandemic and worldwide protests against police brutality. Professional athletes, more comfortable than ever, expressing their views and opinions on systemic racism in the United States and awakened by the murder of George Floyd. A league whose roster make-up is 70% African American and who the advancement of the justice they seek can be done only through solidarity, regardless of race.

Welcome to the 2020 NFL.

Black NFL players have been consistently on-message in their need for their white teammates’ support to affect change. Tennessee’s locker room and the fans whom they represent know they have an formidable ally in Tannehill.

“This push was the straw that broke the camel’s back, it finally got to the point where enough was enough,” Tannehill. “More and more people are getting an awakening to the reality of the situation and how deep it really is. There’s so many layers to it and it’s been happening for far too long. If you’re a white person, you don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis. It’s easy to go about your life not worrying about it. I think people are waking up.”

For the Titans quarterback, that awakening occurred in Miami.

2016 was the knee Colin Kaepernick began his peaceful protest of kneeling during the National Anthem. Tannehill spent that season with then-Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills who the quarterback credits with educating him on the plight minorities face in America. Stills took time to explain to the issues in a way that affected change.

Sep 9, 2018; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (right) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills (left) against the Tennessee Titans during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Tannehill listened and, now, shines as the example of how one learns.

“My conversations with Kenny and coming to realize what he’s gone through in his life,” Tannehill said. “I can’t imagine being put in that situation and having to deal with it. You hear stories like that and you start to research. I started digging more and more into it as time went on. You go from being naive to the situation and to the privilege. I wanted to learn more and realize how big of an issue it is.”

Highlighting the white quarterback as a hero of black causes may feel like a cliche’ but Tannehill’s efforts speak to the true meaning of leadership. The situations brought to light in the wake of this latest tragedy are complex and have plagued society for hundreds of years. Academics, politicians and several generations of passionate civilians have tried to invoke the kind of change African Americans protest still today for with little true progress. Professional athletes are looked to in times like this, fairly or unfairly, with expectations.

Sometimes, they do not always come through.

But, in Tannehill, Tennessee has true fortitude in a quarterback that learned from mistakes his league made four years ago. His teammates notice, his voice keeps the conversation going and it sets a standard for society at large. His profile is not that of Drew Brees, but his education on the issues is miles ahead.

“It’s kind of like enough is enough, right,” Tannehill said. “It’s something that my eyes have been opened to, the privilege I’ve lived with my whole life just because of the color of my skin. The situations my friends, my teammates, guys that I love, that they’ve been put in throughout their life purely because of the color of their skin, things they have to deal with which no man, no people should have to deal with, hearing stories.”

Lessons learned in preparation for a life-changing 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

Featured Image: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports.


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