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The outrage over Bruce Arians’ comments is overwrought

John Romano | The Bucs coach had an indelicate opinion about the usefulness of demonstrations, but history suggests he is neither out of touch nor unsympathetic.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of promoting diverse candidates on his staff. Byron Leftwich is one of two Black offensive coordinators in the NFL.
Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of promoting diverse candidates on his staff. Byron Leftwich is one of two Black offensive coordinators in the NFL. [ SCOTT EKLUND | AP ]
Published Aug. 28, 2020

His turn was bound to come up. Bruce Arians is simply too unguarded in a groupthink world.

And so the Buccaneers coach had his moment of contrived controversy Friday morning because of something he’d said the day before about the sports world staging one- and two-day boycotts in response to protests of police shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisc.

The full text of Arians’ quote is important, and I’ll get to that later, but here’s the offending line:

" … protesting doesn’t do crap, in my opinion. I’ve been seeing it since 1968.”

The head of the NFL players association tweeted about it, the Washington Post contacted university experts about it and ESPN’s hosts went gonzo over it. And that was just the start of the official reaction. Social media offered its own set of pitchforks.

Just to be clear, that’s all perfectly acceptable. Arians is a public figure and his words carry weight.

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The problem is that society is quick to pounce, and that means context, subtlety and history can all get lost in our rush to have a bold view. So, “I disagree with what Bruce Arians said,” becomes “Bruce Arians should keep his mouth shut,” becomes “F--- Bruce Arians.”

And, after a while, no one stops to consider any of the nuance or intent involved.

For instance, here are the 44 words that preceded the “crap” quote:

“Your responsibility is to take action. 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 … ”

Let that marinate for a moment. Arians wasn’t criticizing the movement, he was unabashedly supporting it. What he was criticizing was the strategy. Which is not unlike what Malcolm X once said about the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s being futile.

But that’s not even the most important point that was lost in Friday morning’s digital outrage. And that’s that Arians has done exactly what he suggested his players do — taken action to make the situation better.

No team in the NFL has a staff as diverse as Arians’. None is even close. The Bucs have both a Black offensive coordinator and a Black defensive coordinator. The rest of the NFL has a total of nine Black men in the top coordinator positions. Looking at it from a percentage standpoint, that works out to 100 percent for the Bucs, and 14.5 percent for 31 other teams. The Bucs also have a Black assistant head coach, a Black special teams coordinator and two female assistants.

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In a recent ESPN interview, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent called Arians a modern-day version of the Bill Walsh/Dennis Green/Tony Dungy coaching tree that opened the door for a generation of Black coaches.

“He’s developing, he’s identifying, he’s presenting opportunities and he’s unapologetic about it,’' Vincent said. “He’s hiring the best coach; that just happens to be people of color.”

Does any of that mean Arians is immune to criticism? Of course not. But there’s a difference between disagreeing with what Arians said, and jumping to the conclusion that he is out of touch or unsympathetic.

Barely 48 hours ago, I applauded the decision by a handful of NBA teams to sit out playoff games. It was an extreme and bold step that would certainly call attention to the social justice issues that players felt were not being heard by enough Americans.

Yet I have no problem with Arians’ point that cancelling a Bucs practice would have no meaningful effect. To borrow a cliché, not every protest is created equal. Cancelling a nationally televised playoff game hours before tipoff was a strong statement. Skipping a private football practice at 8:30 in the morning would be more symbolic than significant.

In the end, I have no problem with anyone who wants to take Arians to task for suggesting that protests have no value. There is certainly evidence that, with enough support, protests can lead to true societal change.

But just because you disagree with the method, does not mean you forsake the ideal.

Arians’ words may have been indelicate. You may even argue they were wrong.

But they did not deserve scorn.