ARLINGTON, Va. – Chris Long couldn’t help but smirk as he read one of the questions from the audience during a town hall meeting on Monday night. The event, which the Philadelphia Eagles’ veteran defensive end hosted for the Players Coalition, aimed to put the spotlight on the upcoming election of district attorneys in two Northern Virginia counties.
The gist of the question for the two candidates sharing the stage with Long was whether they are inspired by the progressive actions of Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner in addressing criminal justice reform. But the question, in the heart of Burgundy and Gold country, began with a punch line:
“This town has a lot to learn from the city where Chris plays with the Eagles,” Long read from the submitted index card. “One is to play better football.”
During a forum where serious issues such as the cash bail system and mass incarceration were discussed for nearly two hours, a reminder of the struggles of Dan Snyder’s team prompted a collective groan from the audience.
“Philly fans are everywhere,” Long said after the event.
To his credit, when the football reference popped up, Long kept the focus on the purpose of the forum that drew a few dozen people to an auditorium at George Mason University’s Arlington campus.
This wasn’t about football. It was about trying to shed light on disparities that Long contends represent “a blind spot” in our society, with the football player leading a pointed panel discussion with Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Steve Descano, running to become Commonwealth Attorneys for Arlington and Fairfax counties, respectively. The election is June 11.
“Historically, people don’t look at DA races,” Long told USA TODAY Sports. “But this is an opportunity. We’re leaving a lot of progression and a lot of reform on the table by not paying attention.”
Blind spot. That’s an interesting term, repeated by Long to make a point. To many people, though, particularly minorities in urban areas and other low-income citizens, the issue is hardly a blind spot. They have witnessed institutional societal inequalities with the criminal justice system throughout their lives, which is why so many connected with the national anthem protests that now-banished former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began as a response to police shootings of unarmed African-Americans.
Yet Long, one of the few white NFL players to take up the cause of the Players Coalition that was formulated in 2017 after the protests shook up the nation’s most popular sports league, certainly brings the right spirit in trying to make a difference.
He readily acknowledges that he grew up privileged, the son of a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Howie Long, who hardly experienced the inequalities that many of his teammates with different cultural backgrounds are acutely aware of.
“I’m sure for other guys who grew up in areas where these blind spots are prevalent,” Long said, “it kind of all makes sense: ‘I’ve seen that. This is how the system works.’ “
It is also significant that Long, who drove up from his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, wanted to add his voice in places like the Virginia suburbs near Washington, D.C. During the forum, Long pointed out that Arlington and Fairfax counties are considered “safe counties” when considering measures of violent crime, yet African-Americans are eight times more likely than whites to face drug charges in Arlington County – typically for low-level offenses.
“They’re disproportionately affecting people of color,” Long said. “You can hit people with the stats all day. A lot of people don’t want to believe stuff, so they’re just going to move the goal posts.”
The focus on the DAs is among several strategies the Players Coalition have engaged in to spark the type of sweeping systematic changes that they hope to impact by joining forces with other entities long committed to such efforts.
In addition to lobbying for legislation, such as the Clean Slate Act in Pennsylvania, the Coalition has embarked on a major campaign to end the cash bail system.
Long mentioned two reasons to shed light on DAs: They have the power to enact reform with their influences on policies. And they can be voted in or out of office.
Even so, he was disappointed that the incumbent DAs who were invited to the forum on Monday night didn’t share the stage with him and the candidates.
“A lot of the incumbents don’t show up,” Long said, alluding to similar events held in other locations. “It just speaks volumes. It is what it is.”
His perspective reflects the educational process that has come with involvement.
“Until two years ago, it wasn’t on my radar,” said Long, who entered the NFL in 2008 as a first-team All-America pick from Virginia drafted second overall by the St. Louis Rams. “I cared about criminal justice in a sense like a normal civilian gets on Twitter and is enraged by police accountability or a viral video. Yeah, weed should be legal. I have these opinions. It’s not enough to have opinions. You have to get involved in the process and getting involved is educating yourself.”
Long is a strong example and has worked diligently behind the scenes to support the Coalition that was co-founded by his Eagles teammate, Malcolm Jenkins, and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin.
“I’m really into the common-sense stuff,” said Long, who supports decriminalizing marijuana nationwide. “If people pay attention to these issues, they’ll find that there’s something in this that appeals to them. You have to break down that stubborn, ‘I’m just not going to hear it’ attitude that a lot of people have.”
On May 2, Patriots safety Devin McCourty will host another in a series of DA forums in Queens, New York. Earlier this month, Jenkins and Will Allen conducted a forum in Pittsburgh. Long realizes the football players are hardly the experts in this arena. Yet they are to be commended nonetheless for using their platforms as athletes to generate attention to a greater societal cause – the type of example that more of us should follow.
It’s why the Coalition, with more than 100 NFL players involved on some level, needs not to be a passing fling.
“I’d like to see it sustained,” Long said. “I hope young players will get involved and carry that torch.”
And I’m hoping that more players like Long will accept a shared responsibility.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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