Recognizing the need for social responsibility in our present environment became a starting point to figuring out what an authentic response would look like from my perspective.

Last December, my wife and I attended the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Awards dinner in the city. Seated near us was a person who looked familiar to me, yet I wasn’t sure why. I realized it was Adam Foss, whom I remembered watching on YouTube. Adam had given a TED talk that quickly gained attention surrounding the unique role prosecutors play in determining the course of action for the accused. Adam, a former prosecutor himself, spoke of his own experiences that allowed him to flourish into the person he’d become versus what could have been had a court not given him another chance.

As we spoke throughout the evening, I expressed to him my recent awakening about issues of social justice and being more intentional in this space. His response was that I should go and see those individuals who have been impacted by the system. In other words, visit a jail or prison.

This wasn’t how I envisioned my involvement materializing.

Taking some time after the event to consider what going to prison would feel like, I was hesitant. Perhaps I was getting too close and a more arms-length approach would be reasonable, like donating money, I’ve done that before, and that doesn’t require a big commitment of self. But the more I tried to find other ways out, the more I realized that this was an important step to take.

Queensboro Correctional Facility, a minimum-security facility which houses prisoners who are preparing to re-enter society, was the institution that I visited with Adam. We were sitting in on a pilot program developed in conjunction with Columbia University and the Manhattan DA Academy. The goal of this program was to bring together district attorneys and those imprisoned at the facility to have discussions about the criminal justice system and the ways in which policies could be reconsidered, developed and ultimately improved.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect visiting the facility, but I was shocked to see how the attorneys and the prisoners participating in the program interacted with one another. We all sat together around a large conference table, the only visible difference between us was the clothing we wore — no one was in restraints. The atmosphere felt more as if I were in a classroom full of my peers, and less like being confined in a prison.

I was seated next to an individual who was serving time. He informed the group that he’d been incarcerated for most of his life. He spoke about his affiliations with gangs and drugs. Yet he said he was at a turning point in his life, his family at home being one motivation, and also a realization that there was a better way to live.

Others in the room spoke about obstacles that they faced. One shared his experience of what he believed was a lack of concern for his freedom, given the type of deal he was presented with prior to being incarcerated, and the pressure he felt to sign such a deal.

I think Adam’s motivation for having me come inside the prison system was to see those being incarcerated as people first, to really listen to their stories and not immediately allow any biases to determine how I’d perceive them.

In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, she mentions something I’ve begun to take notice of: “The notion that a vast gulf exists between criminals and those of us who have never served prison time is a fiction created by the racial ideology that birthed mass incarceration, namely that there is something fundamentally wrong and morally inferior about them. The reality, though, is that all of us have done wrong.”

If I am accepting of the idea that the differences between me and those that I was seated alongside of in the conference room were a mere construction, how should that then inform my actions?

Jarrell Daniels, whom I’ve learned a great deal from, was present at Queensboro that day. He spoke with me about the need to create forums to speak about criminal justice reform. By building awareness, educating people on the issues and advocating for policy reform, there is the opportunity to create change and make a difference in the communities which are being most affected. Jarrell, who as a young man experienced incarceration first hand, now utilizes his past as a way to connect with others who are most at risk.

I’ve teamed up with Jarrell in order to make forums a reality. As we look to work together, I feel as though our steps have been divinely orchestrated to get us to this point, which otherwise would not have occurred. It is that very belief in the divine that reminds me to speak out for those who cannot speak, and to defend the rights of all who are destitute.

For the past two seasons, I’ve had to consider what I would have done had I been on the sidelines still dressed in green and white. And today, yet again the question remains, would I kneel?
I think I’ve always been reluctant to do things outside of my comfort zone. When I’ve looked at issues in the past to support, if the issue did not directly affect me or my family or if the potential backlash seemed too daunting, I would tend to avoid the issue. But at what point does the struggle of another human being begin to trump my own comforts? When is my inactivity no longer an acceptable response?
As I watched the entire New York Jets organization during the 2017 season lock arms in solidarity on the sidelines before facing the Dolphins. I was at home, retired, detached from those who were in the midst of the fight. I was filled with a mixture of emotions that I couldn’t make sense of, unsure of the right course of action to be taken. The act of kneeling was never intended to disrespect our military, but rather bring awareness of the alarming incidences of police brutality and social injustice in our country, but what did kneeling mean at this point? Was kneeling now just an objection to President Trump’s inflammatory remarks? Why was it now being perceived as a slight against the armed forces? Or if a player stood, did that mean he was indifferent to those suffering injustice in our society?
I do appreciate the players that have demonstrated their beliefs through action, even when my own was hard to see. In last year’s November issue of GQ magazine, I read something that Eric Reid said that really caused me to pause and think about how I am honestly living out my faith. “The Bible talks very explicitly in Proverbs about being the voice of the voiceless and speaking up for the vulnerable. Another verse is: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ I guess selfishly I’m trying to get to heaven.” When I read this, I felt convicted. As a believer, I knew that I could never say that this was an issue that I wasn’t called to be involved in. I knew that Eric was justified in echoing those words expressed in Proverbs and in the book of James. The issue of kneeling had forced a conversation about social justice that perhaps I wasn’t ready to have with myself. That I hadn’t spoken up.
As I wrestled with my own thoughts, I watched as players mobilized into action. The Players Coalition, a diverse group of NFL players, committed to pushing the conversations with owners to tangible results, one that will lead to almost $90 million in financial support to grass-roots organizations over a seven-year period. Members of the coalition have advocated for legislation and have helped to bring various issues of social responsibility into the forefront.
But have issues of social justice been addressed sufficiently to the point where it is justifiable to fine NFL teams if athletes still opt to kneel this upcoming season? I don’t think I can agree with that. I am no longer playing in the NFL, but if I were I hope I would resist the urge to play it safe by standing and blending in with the masses. As I find my voice and look to engage organizations that advance the cause of social change, I am proud to have been a part of New York Jets organization, that while the debate of kneeling is still present, supports its players who decide to kneel , and whose ownership is willing to pay any fine as a result of it.