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On Zeke, Lurie, racism and human beings (or, how to deal with non-sports sports debate)

If we aren’t willing to listen, how are we to move forward?

NFL: 2017 NFL Draft Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What do Jeffrey Lurie, Shaun King, Ezekiel Elliott, Roger Goodell, you, me and your 748 friends on Twitter have in common?

We all have a voice.

What each person does with his or her voice is up to them. But everyone’s got one.

Collectively, we give society something of an incessant voice, especially if we’re talking about the harbinger of expeditiously delivered and fervently defended ideologies that is social media. Together, we form narratives. Sometimes — many times — the narratives clash. Sometimes they dissipate. Or, if we’ve all stumbled, either knowingly or haphazardly, onto the rare unanimous opinion, those narratives can serve as a building block for a unified step forward.

Alright, you’ve doused us with your prose. Now what’s the point?

Welcome to 2017, where you will not find sports commentary without also finding — and then engaging, observing or having to embrace ignorance of — social activism and political debate. Where you will be summoned to judge another human being’s character over the Internet. Where, ultimately and inevitably, your own voice can be used against you.

Case in point: I am writing all this on a website about the Philadelphia Eagles.

And, truthfully, I wish I wasn’t. (Cue the pitch-fork comments: “Then you shouldn’t have wasted your time in the first place!”). Generally speaking, I think most would agree with me when I say one of the appeals of sports, of pouring into a football team turned family, is the escape it provides and the tight community it can foster. It might be different as a kid idolizing the giants of the gridiron, but as you mature, isn’t watching, waiting for and talking about football — or any sport or hobby, for that matter — just a slice of our Heaven; a way to find joy amid the ups and downs of life? It’s why, after I’ve shared these thoughts and perhaps conversed with some of you as a result, I’m anxiously anticipating those times when all we’re talking is Birds.

When the messiness of all those voices — those conflicting narratives — seeps into the daily headlines of the very Birds to whom I refer, however, it seems more appropriate than ever to explore just how we, as football fans but also, more importantly, as free citizens and human beings, might proceed.

And, boy, has that messiness seeped.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I could see it seeping into the debate about Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL suspension he is fighting for alleged domestic violence. The debate has seemingly become about pushing certain agendas instead of having concern for the short- and long-term well-being of both a 22-year-old man and the 21-year-old woman he allegedly harmed.

I could see it seeping when the Eagles’ own Malcolm Jenkins received support for his raised-fist demonstration during the National Anthem from teammate Chris Long in the preseason. It was a sign of unity for some but an undoubted, albeit oft-inexplicable, mark of disdain for others who have been turned off by what they deem “anti-American” protests. Some have criticized No. 27 for his “disrespect” despite Jenkins, in between endeavors with government, law enforcement and even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the community, explicitly making clear he has family in the military and wants “reform,” not opposition to the flag. (A flag, by the way, that symbolizes his freedom to say or do what he chooses.)

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

And I could sure see it seeping when, just recently, the Eagles took it upon themselves to refute “unfair” and “inaccurate” insinuations by New York Daily News columnist and Twitter celeb Shaun King that Lurie had nixed any possibility of Colin Kaepernick joining the team simply because of the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s anthem protests in 2016. Out came King, hollering online, out-of-context quotes from a local column as his support and targeting Lurie for what King perceived and conveyed as racism. On top of that, out came tens of thousands of unnerved spectators on both sides of the tussle, some further embittered as they bantered behind the character limits of Twitter and other long-winded thoughts in the comments section of my summary for CBS Sports, which, in only a few hours’ time garnered the most traffic of anything I’ve ever written.

It’s exhausting stuff after a while, and that’s just a graze of the surface. It’s also very real stuff. Very important stuff. Even if, on most Sundays, our focus can stay on the field, we can be content yapping about just that.

But how do we navigate all of the messiness? How can we possibly avoid the burnout of partaking in these not-so-sporty sports discussions, let alone reverse the course of an increasingly divisive society, and yet still engage in or at least fruitfully observe the madness?

It starts with remembering that we all have a voice. That our voice matters. And that everyone who has a voice and chooses to use it, for better or worse, is imperfect and human like the rest of us.

We often forget, especially when matters as life-altering as these are reduced to reality-TV sideshows of a game we all love to watch, to even begin to put ourselves in others' shoes.

The courts will have their say when it comes to ordeals of a legal matter. But even then, and just as much when alleged crimes aren’t involved, what we often need is dialogue. Or, even simpler, a willingness to have a dialogue.

We don’t need shouting matches with no intention to listen to alternative viewpoints. We don’t need put-downs published merely for “likes,” at the tragic expense of progressive conversation. Where does any of that get us except backed further into our own comfortable corners, maybe a little fired up for our beliefs, but ultimately no closer to understanding nor showing an ounce of compassion for those who disagree with us?

Dialogue, in the case of the recent off-field Eagles headlines, might have done wonders. In the case of the Shaun King spat, we got a glimpse of that after the fact when, after speaking with Jenkins, King admitted he had misrepresented Lurie.

Maybe everyone could benefit from putting themselves into the shoes of others before making judgements and finding faults in opposing viewpoints.

In the age of social media, of course, it’s increasingly hard to imagine that happening, at least online. As Leon H. Wolf once wrote, per “America’s Original Sin” by Jim Wallis:

“Everyone feels tremendous pressure to form an opinion quickly and state it loudly with certainty. Once this has been done, people are highly resistant to changing their minds and they become impervious to new evidence, often dismissing out of hand outright facts just because they are reported by a given source ...”

We see this all the time in sports commentary. Everyone likes to get brash with their quarterback assessments or game predictions and then stand by them for far too long. That’s part of the fun.

But when that carries over to bigger issues, like responding to another person’s accounts of social inequality or another person’s long-held respect for servicemen, it’s dangerous to clamp our ears shut while we’re busy spewing our own voice into the world and into others’ lives. I don’t think I need to tell you this can be applied to a lot more than conversations about the NFL’s dirty laundry. At its core, this prioritization of everyone’s voice, this sometimes-painstaking but oft-rewarding challenge to view other imperfect people as people.

I leave you with this, a few words from a troubled time, centered on some familiar passions and from the mouth of someone more profound than me ... a speech, as transcribed in Philip Yancey’s “Soul Survivor,” from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

A big danger for us is the temptation to follow the people we are opposing. They call us names, so we call them names. Our names may not be “redneck” or “cracker”; they may be names that have a sociological or psychological veneer to them, a gloss; but they are names, nonetheless -- “ignorant,” or “brainwashed,” or “duped” or “hysterical” or “poor-white” or “consumed by hate.” I know you will all give me plenty of evidence in support of these categories. But I urge you to think of them as that -- as categories; and I remind you that in many people, in many people called segregationists, there are other things going on in their lives: this person or that person, standing here or there may also be other things -- kind to neighbors and family, helpful and good-spirited at work.

You all know, I think, what I’m trying to say -- that we must try not to end up with stereotypes of those we oppose, even as they slip all of us into their stereotypes. And who are we? Let us not do to ourselves as others (as our opponents) do to us: try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category -- the virtuous ones as against the evil ones, or the decent ones as against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated as against the ignorant. You can see that I can go on and on -- and there is the danger: the “us” or “them” mentality takes hold …

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