Opinion: Players Coalition expands definition of ‘social justice’ with COVID relief efforts

The sobering statistics hit home with Anquan Boldin. In one U.S. city after another, African Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate.

“There are two people that I know personally who are in (intensive care) as we speak,” Boldin, the former NFL star receiver, told USA TODAY Sports. “My grandmother just recovered from COVID. And I have a couple of cousins, everyone in their entire house had COVID.”

Boldin’s voice at the other end of the telephone line sounded increasingly agitated as he talked about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. As of early Tuesday, there were 787,960 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., with 42,364 deaths, according to research from Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control.

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Anquan Boldin played for 14 seasons in the NFL

“The testing is not available for minority communities, especially where I come from,” said Boldin, who grew up in Pahokee, Florida. He said attempts to secure tests have been unsuccessful as have they been around the country for many people. “And then I’m seeing the numbers from places like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore … (a disproportionate number) of the deaths are people of color.” 

Including up to 70% in Louisiana according to recent numbers from the Louisiana Department of Health. African Americans make up about a third of the Louisiana population.

Boldin, who co-founded the Players Coalition (PC) with now-New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins in 2017, is anything but the one to grumble from some ivory tower. He had to do something. Around Easter, he brainstormed with fellow PC members, including Kelvin Beachum, Josh Norman and Josh McCown. They quickly decided to support COVID-19 relief efforts, and in the process, provided another way to define the “social justice” mission the organization was founded on.

The NFL quickly got on board, too. On Monday, the league, via its “Inspire Change” platform and PC, announced its is donating $3.05 million to support COVID-19 relief efforts in communities of color through 34 organizations in seven markets. The money was originally targeted to roll over to social justice initiatives in 2020, after being unused in 2019. Boldin got the process started to divert the funds with an e-mail to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“He was responsive, right away,” Boldin said. “He thought it was a great idea. He even put in some of his own money.”

To this point, the PC (effectively born out of the protests by NFL players that began in 2016 with now-blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick) has had its most notable impact with criminal justice reform initiatives. With various members taking the lead in pursuing matters in different locations, the group has pushed for bail reform, expansion of voting rights, juvenile justice reform, and even became active in the search for a new police chief in Philadelphia, among other efforts. It has also played a part in police-community relations programs and educational pursuits. The relief effort represents some new ground.

“This is a little bit outside the scope of social justice, but in the overall aspect of it, it’s caring for people,” Boldin said. “For me, that’s what social justice is, that’s what police-community relations is, that’s what educational equality is. For me, it’s all about people, making sure that people are taken care of, especially those who don’t have the voice, who don’t have the resources, making sure they get what they need. That’s what it’s all about.”

Boldin knows. The COVID-19 crisis unfortunately casts attention on issues that he maintains have been discussed in the black community “for as long as I’ve been alive.” He suspects that some in mainstream America, though, may choose to ignore the societal disparities and contributing factors.

“It exposes everything we’ve already known,” Boldin said. “You talk about healthcare in minority communities, we know there’s a lack of healthcare available to us. People get turned away. People have pre-existing conditions. Then I think about it from an educational standpoint. You can go on and on. And those things are happening without COVID.”

Recipients of the donation from the PC and NFL include hospitals, health systems and non-profit organizations in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Florida and Louisiana. Boldin said the PC has previously worked with the organizations.

“We wanted to make sure that the money is going directly to the people that needed it,” he said. “The organizations we picked, we’ve worked with, we know of directly. We have first-hand knowledge that they serve the people.”

One of organizations, the Krewe of Red Beans in New Orleans, is feeding hospital workers with food purchased from locally owned restaurants. Out-of-work musicians and artists have been hired to handle the deliveries. LifeBridge Health, a hospital system in Baltimore, will use the money to boost its telemedicine program, accessing patients with transportation issues in their homes.

Another beneficiary, We The People of Detroit, is committed to preventing residential water shut-offs.

“They’re paying for basic necessities,” Boldin said. “I know we talk about social distancing and being able to wash your hands for 20 seconds, but that’s impossible for someone who doesn’t have running water in their house. Those are things that don’t sit well with us, things that we wanted to help out with.”

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