It was during a Zoom chat shortly after George Floyd’s death while in police custody that finally — and fully — influenced John Mara about the grave concerns harbored by his players.
“One of the most memorable team meetings that I’ve ever been involved with took place right after the George Floyd murder,” the Giants co-owner said Thursday, referencing Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis. “To see the raw emotion that came out of [Giants players], guys got very, very emotional talking about it. It was something that was really an eye-opener for me.”
He was equally moved by what came next.
“To see how they’ve reacted since then, and all the work that they’ve put in in their communities and in our local community here has been really gratifying,” Mara said. “It makes it easier to want to support them going forward.”
Mara is part of a growing movement among NFL owners to more publicly support player initiatives aimed at drawing attention to social justice issues and police brutality problems that have led to protests around the country. Floyd’s death and last month’s police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, have become flash points in a movement that initially drew the NFL into the discussion when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest these issues.
NFL owners initially were mostly silent on the matter, in part because they feared fan backlash was threatening the sport’s popularity and negatively impacting revenue. It also drew the wrath of President Donald Trump, who suggested that owners fire players who didn’t stand during the anthem. Owners unanimously adopted a requirement in 2018 that players stand for the anthem, a move they have since abandoned after players vehemently disagreed with the policy.
Mara has for years been conflicted in trying to balance the needs of his players to express their feelings about social injustice while listening to fans who had expressed anger over players who took a knee and, in many cases, stopped following the NFL altogether. That dilemma is far less problematic for Mara now.
“My position back in 2017 is the same as it is now in terms of, I’ll support any player’s right to engage in silent protest,” he said. “What makes it easy for me to do that is when I see how much work they’re doing in the community and how important what is going on in this country right now is to each of them. They back it up with actions, not just words. Our players are very engaged in working in a lot of different areas.”
Mara took part in a video that aired Friday night before the team’s scrimmage at MetLife Stadium, in which players drew attention to social justice issues.
“I was happy to do that,” he said. “We had a great meeting with our leadership group last week to talk about some of the things that we want to do in the future. I’m going to support our players, particularly when they engage in the type of activity that they have been off the field. They’ve been fantastic about that.”
Mara also knows that his more vocal support for these initiatives will not please a sizable portion of the team’s fan base that prefers players concentrate on their sport, not off-field issues. In fact, the words he spoke on Thursday’s Zoom call with reporters might very well inflame those fans’ emotions even further and cause them to tune out.
“I understand the fact and accept the fact that’s not going to be necessarily popular with certain segments of our fan base,” Mara said. “But I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Mara stands by his “preference that everybody stand [for the anthem],” with an important caveat.
“If you decide in your conscience that you think taking a knee is the right thing to do,” he said, “I’m going to support your right to do that. I believe in the First Amendment, and I believe in the right of people, especially players, to take a knee in silent protest if that’s what they want to do.”
Words Mara now lives by.
Even if he knows many of his fans may disagree to the point of withdrawing their support for the Giants.