As some NFL players sit out practices, Bucs camp goes on

TAMPA — While Bruce Arians’ response to the Bucs taking the field Thursday while many other NFL teams opted not to practice might have come off initially as tone deaf, his intended message was as passionate about enacting social change as ever.

After games in the NBA, Major League Baseball, WNBA and MLS (and later, NHL) were postponed as a form of protest following the shooting Sunday by police officers of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wis., several NFL teams decided not to practice Thursday.

The Bucs met as a team before their 8:30 a.m. scheduled practice and decided to take the field. Arians challenged players, saying actions speak louder than words — or the decision not to practice for one day.

“Your responsibility is to take action,” Arians said. “I don’t know that protest is an action. I think each guy has a personal thing. I would beg them to take action, find a cause and either support it financially or do something to change the situation, because protesting doesn’t do crap, in my opinion. I’ve been seeing it since 1968.”

Arians grew up seeing people of color face poor social and economic conditions while growing up in York, Pa., leading to unrest in the city during the late ’60s, when Arians was a teenager. He has long championed diversity and has the only coaching staff with three Black coordinators and two female coaches.

While some might view Arians’ words as suggesting protests are fruitless — several of his players spent the offseason participating in demonstrations across the country in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — ultimately, the 67-year-old coach seems more frustrated that race relations haven’t improved all these years later.

However blunt, Arians’ message was clear: Even in this “bigger than sports” moment, taking action off the field means more than deciding whether to be on it right now.

“If they want to do something, we’ll do it, as long as it’s something that’s going to have something to do with change and not just taking a day off,” Arians said.

Meanwhile, nine NFL clubs — the Bears, Cardinals, Broncos, Chargers, Colts, Jets, Packers, Titans and the Washington Football Team — chose to cancel practices. The Lions were the first NFL team to take action, canceling their Tuesday practice.

The NHL, which played games Wednesday, postponed its schedule for Thursday and Friday. The NBA called off its Thursday games as it had done Wednesday, as well as the WNBA. Several major-league baseball games also were postponed Thursday, including the Orioles versus the Rays at Tropicana Field.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play their NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic in response to the Blake shooting, starting a string of cancellations across several sports. The incident involving Blake is the latest in a string of violence against people of color by law enforcement.

Related: NBA players make loud statement by turning down the volume

“You keep constantly seeing it and seeing it, and it’s not okay,” Bucs running back LeSean McCoy said. “When we have these conversations, guys are emotional. That could be (one of us). We are who we are, right? We could be some of (those) people that don’t really have a voice or (are) losing their lives. It’s really tough. Those are the kind of conversations, to be honest, that are real touchy. It’s like you keep seeing it. It’s one thing if you hear about it, but it’s actually on tape.”

Bucs players met quickly before practice. The team agreed to take the field but decided to focus on ways they can make an impact.

“We don’t want to just say these things, say this or say that,” McCoy said. “We want to actually go out there and be productive, and as a unit, as a group of all colors and all teammates to try to make a difference. The tough part is there’s no real answer for those questions yet. Hopefully together we can send a message out, whatever that may be. (Arians) talked about it today. As a group, how can we find a solution and an answer to make our statement?

“Not practicing, what does that really do?” McCoy continued. “We want a real statement.”

Bucs running back LeSean McCoy helps with position drills during his pre-determined veteran maintenance day off on Thursday. [Eduardo A. Encina | Times] [ EDUARDO A. ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times ]

The Bucs already have been working to do their part, starting a social justice initiative in 2018 that focuses on the barriers to racial and social equality through police relations, community empowerment and criminal justice reform.

Since players returned to the building for training camp, they have had meetings about other social justice campaigns, with a focal point being a voting initiative. Thursday’s meeting prompted additional discussions.

“As a coach, the first thing you do is you listen to the players,” said offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. “It’s really about them. Whatever they feel we should do as a group, we’ll do. I believe in the cause. I mean, man, things got to change, right? The things that we’re seeing on TV right now is scary, the things that we see every day and the experiences that you see some people have.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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