By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
In a national spotlight, many athletes appear larger than life, miles above the issues that plague all others surrounding them. However, while one’s status does not make them exempt from disparities, it can bring voices to the forefront of those willing to help shape a positive identity for our nation. James Ihedigbo is using his NFL platform as a launching pad this black history month to spark dialog on race relations and bring about unity.
Ihedigbo just completed his 10th season in the league as a safety for the New York Jets, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions and, most recently, the Buffalo Bills.
He has been able to accomplish some rare feats during his career including playing in four consecutive AFC Championships and playing in back-to-back Super Bowls—first with the Patriots in a Super Bowl XLVI loss and then winning the crown the following year as a member of the Ravens.
Ihedigbo realizes that some perceive a 10-year NFL veteran and Super Bowl Champ as unfazed by societal issues. But on the contrary, he knows that everyone is affected equally by the successes and errors of generations past and that together we can all have a hand in molding something better for future generations.
Striving to make his mark, Ihedigbo stated that he takes every opportunity presented to help and educate others.
“It important to speak up on injustices,” he said. “The only way for everyone to understand each other is if the conversation starts, and it’s not a defensive one. It’s about educating each other on how things feel from each point of view and how we can join together and find common ground.”
The educational approach is what drew him into teaming up with RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality). RISE is about the current state of our country’s race relations and has a mantra of understanding, respect and equality. The initiative uses sports as a catalyst to improve race relations and drive social progress.
Ihedigbo joined the group and participated in a panel featuring Michael Bennett (Patriots), Brandon Marshall (Jets), Michael Thomas (Dolphins), Glover Quin (Lions), Josh McCown (Browns), Hall-of-Famer Aeneas Williams and several others prior to Super Bowl LI.
“The number of athletes and the accolades that surrounded us—all-pros, pro-bowlers, 13-plus-year veterans—it was a broad group,” he said. “It was an honor just to be called in to be a part of it. It’s a call to everyone to get involved and share his or her views. We want to see change collectively for everyone.”
When speaking on the importance of making athletes the face of this conversation, Ihedigbo made reference to his time as a youth when everyone wanted to ‘be like Mike.’ Many youth grew up leaning on every action, play and word of their favorite athlete. Ihedigbo and RISE produce this effect by combining strength in numbers and using open dialog as the key to unlock change.
“Its important to have these prominent athletes collectively speaking with one voice and fighting for the same things,” he explained. “Now we have social media, which increases audience. People are almost forced to hear us because there are so many media outlets and the platform has reached new heights.”
Ihedigbo highlighted the unique position that athletes have, and as entertainers they can gain the ear of both sides of the isle simply because people love them for the rare qualities that pro athletes possess.
And there is no better time to let their voices be heard.
“If we don't speak up now, who will?” he said. “The days of just being an NFL player are long gone.”
Ihedigbo is passionate about bridging the gap between police officers and communities, building personal relationships and valuing them. He stated that it is not the duty of one side or the other to fix the issue. It is something that requires a mutual understanding and respect.
He hopes that one day citizens and officers will be able to integrate themselves in minority communities and not only coexist, but hold the highest admiration for each other.
“We had officer Norman come speak and he spends time in his community, visits kids’ birthday parties in the neighborhood,” he said of the Arkansas-based policeman. “He truly just interacts with everyone and builds those personal relationships. He values that. He values making a positive impact even when he doesn’t have his badge on. That is what it takes to make change in minority communities and it can’t just be one-side. It has to go both ways.”
Black History Month is about more than our past, but the steps we are paving towards a better tomorrow. Ihedigbo is proud to be making social deposits in hopes of creating future waves of change.
It’s our duty,” Ihedigbo said. “Change starts in the heart and the way we think about each other. That’s what it is all about.”