Where to start? It’s tempting to go right to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, what with the House committee investigating those events holding a prime-time hearing Thursday. That sad day was a deadly threat to our democracy. Del Rio reduced it to “a dust-up.” We’ll get to that.
But what stands out about Del Rio’s words and deeds are the tit-for-tat line he wants to draw between the protests that roiled the country two summers ago because police officers continue to kill Black people and the protests at the Capitol that were fueled by baseless claims of a stolen election. It’s hard to link the two, but Del Rio managed.
To review: On Monday night, he replied to a tweet about a Brookings Institution report that professed to tell “the whole story” about what happened Jan. 6 with the following tweet of his own: “Would love to understand ‘the whole story’ about why the summer of riots, looting, burning and the destruction of personal property is never discussed but this is ??? #CommonSense”
Addressing reporters Wednesday after a Commanders offseason workout, Del Rio walked nothing back. Rather, he grabbed a shovel and started digging.
“What did I ask? A simple question,” Del Rio said in comments he later issued a narrow apology for. “Why are we not looking into those things if we’re going to talk about it? Why are we not looking into those things? … I can look at images on the TV — people’s livelihoods are being destroyed. Businesses are being burned down. No problem.
“And then we have a dust-up at the Capitol, nothing burned down, and we’re going to make that a major deal. I just think it’s kind of two standards, and if we apply the same standard and we’re going to be reasonable with each other, let’s have a discussion. That’s all it was. Let’s have a discussion.”
First, his apology. It read, in part, “Referencing that situation as a dust-up was irresponsible and negligent and I am sorry.” A nice start. But what he never acknowledged was the offensive idea that the violence in these two cases are similar in origin.
The summer of 2020 will go down as one of the most significant racial reckoning points of the past 100 years. The violence to which Del Rio refers stemmed from one of the most horrifying facts of American life: that the color of your skin affects your likelihood of being abused or killed by the very law enforcement officers sworn to protect us. It reached a boiling point because of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but that was preceded by Breonna Taylor in Louisville; which was preceded by Stephon Clark in Sacramento; which was preceded by Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn.; which was preceded by Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
The list is longer than that, and the anger that spilled out that summer had been brewing for decades. It was based in real lives unjustly lost. I will never know what it feels like to live with that fear and that rage. Neither will Jack Del Rio.
But we can try to understand and listen — to have a discussion, as Del Rio suggested. That’s what Del Rio’s team did after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by police in Wisconsin. That August day in 2020, the then-Washington Football Team canceled practice to hold a team-wide discussion on racism and social justice.
“[Team president] Jason Wright and I worked this afternoon to develop a response that has the right balance between the business of football and being truly thoughtful about the social injustice we witnessed with this latest incident in Wisconsin,” Coach Ron Rivera said in a statement back then.
This remains a front-and-center issue in American society. It remains a front-and-center issue for the NFL and many of its teams. It is a front-and-center issue for Wright, the team’s first Black president. It’s not an accident that, earlier this week, the Commanders themed one of their home games as “Inspire Change,” when FedEx Field will host Black-owned businesses for a holiday market. Among other things, the protests that followed Floyd’s death forced the mostly White groups that run NFL teams to listen to their mostly Black players.
That’s the workplace in which Del Rio is supposed to be a leader. Instead, he wants to compare the violence that erupted after generations of inequality and oppression — problems both ingrained and infuriating — with the violence that followed the false notion that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump.
Reducing the Jan. 6 horror — lawmakers and their staffs bracing against doors and scrambling through hallways as an armed mob broke through barriers and blockades — to “a dust-up” in which “nothing burned down” is one level of misjudgment on which Del Rio doubled down Wednesday. But tying it in with the rioting that followed the murder of a Black man at the hands of police — a death that followed so many others like it — is so offensive that it borders on disqualifying.
Condemn violence in all of its forms. But differentiate between fact and fiction, between systemic failures and vast conspiracies.
Rivera, Del Rio’s boss, ducked an opportunity to publicly scold his defensive coordinator Wednesday.
“If that ever becomes an issue, a situation, then we’ll have that discussion,” Rivera told reporters before Del Rio addressed them. “But right now, it’s something that I will deal with when it comes up.”
It has come up. What must Wright think? We don’t yet know. A Commanders spokesperson declined to comment when asked for reaction from the team president.
“I love that I’m an American, and that means I’m free to express myself,” Del Rio said.
Indeed. The government cannot — and should not — have the right to come down on Del Rio for what he tweeted Monday or what he said Wednesday. His employer, however, is another matter. Jack Del Rio represents the Washington Commanders. It’s on franchise leadership — on Wright and on Rivera — to evaluate whether his is the message they want sent to their locker room and to their fan base.
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