Apologies to you if you opened up this column looking for snark. Normally I am happy to heap scorn and derision upon on our division mates and expose them for the football frauds that they have become. But not today. Not this week. Not while so many in our community are hurting. Not while all of sports takes a rightful backseat to the issues affecting real life.
As things have unfolded over this last week, and for a long time before that, I have been thinking back to the very first time I was ever pulled over by police. I was 16 years old and it was 1:30 in the morning on New Year’s Eve. And it’s a story that is relevant today.
I wasn’t speeding and I hadn’t been drinking. My taillights were out. A short in the fusebox of my 1978 Datsun 510. (My parents hooked me up with a sweet ride for my first car).
I think about the incident so many years ago, because even though it was New Year’s Eve, I was never asked to step out of the car. I remember reaching into my inside jacket pocket to get my wallet without so much as an extra word or flinch from the officer standing at my window. It never occurred to me it was dangerous. It didn’t seem to occur to him either.
A second police car pulled up while I was speaking with the first officer. He must have gotten the high sign that all was okay, because he ended up pulling away. The first officer, by himself, and very polite, decided he could handle me on his own. He was right of course, but how did he know he was right? Or more specifically, what about me made him think he was right?
I got a fix-it ticket and continued on home, not giving the incident much thought for years, other than to tell the story about how my parents – also on their way home that night – passed me along the side of the road. My father actually pulled over, got out of his car, and spoke to the officer – also without incident or the raising of any hackles.
Perhaps if there had been two of us in the car we would have been treated differently. Perhaps. But what I can say for certain is that first encounter with police has resulted in a lifetime of never being afraid of other police. I’ve been pulled over a half-dozen times since then, and it’s always been a relatively stress free interaction – aside from the money I know I’m losing. I’ve never once been concerned with my hand placement or the police officer’s demeanor. Never once have I feared for my safety, or even my temporary freedom. I’ve always known, without any doubt, that I would simply get a ticket and be on my way.
And that is always the way it goes.
I was, for many years, in the “All Lives Matter” camp. How could that be wrong? I was a good person. I never judged people by the color of their skin. I cared about black lives, and all lives. Why was it wrong to say “all lives matter”? That was simply an enhancement to the message of Black Lives Matter. It wasn’t a counter to it.
My mind has changed.
I am a cancer survivor. Several times over in fact. I was originally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was a senior in high school. I had a recurrence two years later, a third battle with it three years after that, and then two years after that I developed a secondary leukemia as a result of previous chemotherapy treatments.
All told I spent a total of 54 months during those four battles with cancer actively in treatment. I have also since had a heart transplant, but that’s a story for another time.
I care very deeply about blood cancers. My experiences throughout my late-teens and twenties shaped who I am. It set the course for my life, which has included being extremely active with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I have raised money, given countless hours to the organization, spoken to patients and volunteers, and been a huge advocate in the efforts to find a cure. And if, when I am speaking or fundraising, someone were to respond to me with, “All diseases matter,” it would piss me off.
It’s true, of course. I have an uncle with Alzheimer’s. Because of my heart transplant I knows scores of people suffering with heart disease. I’m friends with kidney and liver transplants. I have a good friend with Crohn’s disease.
Yes, of course, all diseases matter. But blood cancers are my focus. That’s what has touched my life. That is the fire I’m trying to extinguish. And while it isn’t wrong to say all diseases matter, it does diminish my efforts. It demotes my cause to a mere subset of other causes.
And I’ve come to realize the same watering down happens with all lives matter. It is true. But it is also not the immediate issue. My house matters just as much as my neighbor’s house, but it is his that is currently on fire. His house is what matters right now. His life is what matters right now.
Black lives matter.
We’ve all been there. Sitting among co-workers, friends, acquaintances, or whatever, and someone says something just a little bit racist. And we ignore it, because it’s easier that way. It doesn’t rock the boat or turn the gathering into “a thing.” Avoiding “things” is something I’ve been good at. I’m not a racist, and he’s not a very good friend, so I’ll just go on with my life, noting that he’s not someone I want to hang out with in the future.
But that’s not enough. It’s no longer enough for me to just not be racist. It’s not just about my actions anymore. It’s about calling out the actions of others. I – we – need to tell that friend that what he just said was not acceptable. It’s not who we are, and it shouldn’t be who he is. And if it becomes a little uncomfortable, so what. It’s right. I will no longer let my comfort dictate the action I’m willing to take.
I would give a large portion of my left arm to become best friends with Patrick Mahomes, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu. The four of us would workout together (me holding the water bottles), cook out in the backyard, play video games, and just be best buds in all things. Sure, I’d be Alan in The Hangover, singing our song of friendship:
We’re the four best friends that anyone could have…
The four best friends that anyone could have…
And we’ll never ever ever ever leave each other.
But I’m okay with that. All pride left when I said goodbye to my left arm.
All of us scream wildly for these players that are black men. We pay more money than we should for jerseys, Super Bowl T-shirts (I’m up to 14 different LIV shirts), autographs, and tickets. Surely that’s a sign that I love and understand black people. If Frank Clark ever decided to start a side hustle as a pet sitter I’d pay any amount I could to have him take care of my cats.
But let’s be real. Cheering for a black man, and even having confusingly erotic reactions to re-watching WASP over and over again, isn’t the same as loving and supporting black people. And it sure isn’t listening to their grievances, their stories, and their pain. It isn’t listening to their criticisms of our actions (or inactions) as white people, and allowing them to direct us in how we can do better.
And of course we can do better. We must do better. Because it is right, but also because it makes us better and more complete human beings.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit in my life. I lived in the UK for five years and my current country count is 37, including many countries where my white face stood out just as much a black face did in my childhood Wichita neighborhood.
In early March my wife and I were in Sri Lanka, educating the locals on who the current Super Bowl champions are, but also taking in the culture, language, and food of this place halfway around the world and so different from us. And I’m always struck when we’re overseas how even though we don’t look, dress, eat, talk, and worship the same, we laugh at the same things. We cry at the same things. We love in the same way.
But when we were in Morocco, and the Muslim call to prayer would ring out across Marrakech, I was acutely aware of our differences too. And they are to be embraced and celebrated.
For too long I thought that being color blind was the answer. Many years ago I dated a Mexican girl. To me she was just Jessica, she wasn’t Mexican. It would have been wrong of me to think of her as Mexican, when she was so much more than that.
But that was a mistake. Yes, she was so much more than her heritage and race. But she was those things too, and they helped make her who she was then, and still is today.
It’s not only okay to see a person’s color, it’s necessary. When we’re at Arrowhead I care about the red you’re wearing. And when we’re in life I care about the color of your skin because it’s a part of who you are. It informs me of your experiences, and it helps me to honor that part of you.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been around the health crisis merry-go-round quite a few times. Four battles with cancer, a bone marrow transplant, a heart transplant, necrotizing fasciitis that nearly took my leg. A devastating lack of athletic ability that ended my pro athlete dreams in junior high.
“I had to work for this…”
“I’ve struggled too…”
“I was lost relationships and jobs because of my health…”
These were all ways that I thought I could understand what it means to have a system against you. These were my justifications for my own inaction. We all have our crosses to bear, so suck it up and drive on. Look at what I’ve been through. I know exhaustion. I know real struggle.
But the reality is that I will never understand what it means to be anything but a white guy. I will never have someone follow me around a store. I will never be profiled by a police officer. I will never lose out on a loan, or a lease, or an invite to a club because I’m seen as “different.” I will never fully understand the black experience in America, and I now understand that.
I commit to never thinking I understand. And by recognizing that I don’t, I will become a better listener. And by being a better listener, I will see people more clearly. And with my eyes fully open, I will be better equipped to take action. And that action will include being proudly intolerant of intolerance.
I won’t always be perfect. I won’t always be great. But I think that I can always be good. And if there are enough of us committed to being good on a regular basis, this will get better. It must get better.
We want to return to the shared joy of February 2nd. We want to be as unified as we were three days later as the champions paraded through Kansas City. And we want everyone who calls this country home to be able to fully realize the freedom and bounty that it promises to provide.
God bless to all my brothers and sisters in Chiefs Kingdom.
And for this one time only, god bless, Raiders, Chargers, and Broncos fans too.
(I really expected to burst into flames by typing that. So glad I didn’t.)