On the field, the Atlanta Falcons are committed to winning football games. Off the field, this is a team committed to creating positive change within the community.
For the second straight offseason, the player-formed Social Justice Players Committee sought to address social justice issues within the Atlanta community and across the country. Members of that committee, Ricardo Allen, De'Vondre Campbell, Steven Means, Mohamed Sanu and Wes Schweitzer, met with coach Dan Quinn in March to formulate a plan for the offseason.
With the help of Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who encourages the players to take action in service of bettering the community, the players went about enacting their plan.
"It's important because we don't live in a country that's perfect, we live in a great country, the greatest in the world, but we have issues here," Blank explained. "The way to address them is to bring attention to them, which the players have helped us do. I'm proud of the NFL, the NFLPA, the Players' Coalition, and most importantly that our own players are heavily involved in working on issues that they think are important."
Upon returning for the team's voluntary offseason program, Means and Campbell went with a group of players to Thomasville Heights Boys & Girls Club. At the event, the players fostered a conversation between Atlanta police officers and male teens that ranged from violence in the community to emotional stability and mental health.
On three consecutive weeks during the summer, many Falcons players visited the Atlanta Police Department to ride with an officer through the city's westside neighborhood. This provided first-hand experience for the players from the perspective of an officer, helping them better understand what it means to protect and serve.
"When we were younger, social media wasn't real hot, but now with everything being brought to the forefront it just put it in a different perspective," Means said. "But at the same time you get to see the other side of the spectrum, and I think that's the most dynamic piece of it. That's the part that's missing because you can sit on one side and not really understand the other side, but now to be able to have these (ride-alongs) that the Falcons provide you can see the other side of it and you can try to piece it together and go forward with our platform and make a difference."
The Falcons' mission to make a difference within the community extended to their final week of organized team activities, during which they participated in a social justice-related activity every single day.
On June 3, three rising seniors from two local high schools were invited to the Falcons' practice facility, IBM Performance Field, and paired with a player for a day. This experience was meant to help instill leadership characteristics and share the Falcons' culture with the students.
The following day, the Falcons hosted teens involved with Foreverfamily, a state-wide organization that focuses on providing services to children with incarcerated parents and their families. The team was joined by former NFL players Takeo Spikes and Adalius Thomas, who spoke with the teens about goal setting and creating positive habits.
Michael Bennett and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner joined Campbell and Allen on June 5 for a trip to the Atlanta Youth Detention Center as part of the Showcase Group program, which focuses on therapeutic interventions and life skill building for youth involved in the criminal justice system.
"I have a lot of personal experience with my area of Social Justice, which is visiting adults and youth within the criminal system," Campbell said. "I think it's just important to be able to go sit down with them because from my experience to sit down with guys who have been in and out of the prison system and hear them say that me coming to talk to them is motivation and it is vice versa. Me going to talk to them is motivation because that is not where I want to be and that's not where they want to be. A lot of the guys I met were intelligent but just happened to make mistakes along the way."
On June 6, Quinn was joined by Damontae Kazee and Ryan Neal for the final police ride-along of the offseason. The next day, the Falcons' 2019 rookie class as well as Giorgio Tavecchio, Alex Gray and Schweitzer worked with Atlanta police officers on a Habitat for Humanity build to provide a new home for a resident on the westside.
The Falcons' player-led and player-formed Social Justice Players Committee has spent the past two years striving to close the gap in understanding on many social justice issues. By working with other organizations to create change at the grassroots level, the Falcons are hoping to make an impact far beyond the football field.
"Social justice means to me just getting everybody to understand the perspectives," Sanu said. "That's the biggest misconception. Not everybody knows perspectives of everything, everyone sees everything from a different lens. If everyone gets educated, learns from a different perspective we'll be able to be more compatible."