NFL Player’s Drive for Social Justice Takes Him to the Hill

Thomas spearheading alliance between ‘athlete activists’ and politicians

Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas poses for photos on the House steps at the Capitol last week during his four-day externship arranged by the NFL Players Association. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On the Friday before the first Sunday of the 2016 NFL season, the entire Miami Dolphins team gathered on the field after practice in Seattle.

No coaches. No trainers. No front-office staff. It was a players-only meeting.

The dominant headline that preseason had been San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

Dolphins team leaders wanted to discuss what to do during the anthem before kickoff at CenturyLink Field that Sunday, the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

“To say we’re split ain’t the word,” safety and special teams captain Michael Thomas said. “There’s some guys in the middle, and then there’s a lot of guys on the whole other extreme, saying, ‘I ain’t doing s---, I’m standing there with my hand over my heart. Y’all do what y’all want to do. I ain’t doing nothing.’”

That opening day fell on the anniversary of Sept. 11 complicated the matter for many players in the league, perhaps none more than the Dolphins.

One Miami assistant coach had lost one of his best friends in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

Ultimately, most stood.

Four — Thomas, running back Arian Foster, wideout Kenny Stills and linebacker Jelani Jenkins — knelt (after standing for a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony).

“The people that we are fighting for, the people who feel voiceless, the people who feel ... helpless because they’ve been singing the same song, crying out the same cries for so long — they’re getting killed on 9/10, 9/11, 9/12, 9/13,” Thomas said. “There’s no days off.”

Capitol Hill game plan

For Thomas, who has continued to kneel during the anthem over the last two seasons, social activism is not confined to NFL Sundays.

Watch: Not Your Average Aide: NFL Player Externs on Hill

Last week, he externed for four days for longtime Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. The Texas Democrat has served in the House for more than two decades and is the ranking member of the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. Her district covers much of Houston, where Thomas went to high school.

Thomas’ official responsibilities ran the gamut. He scurried to the cloak room to hand off materials and papers to other Jackson Lee staffers, drafted committee hearing memos, and wrote a one-minute speech for the House floor.

But his week on the Hill wasn’t a publicity stunt for the NFL Players Association, which runs an externship program every off-season for players  who are interested in business, entrepreneurship and what have you.

In the seven hours Roll Call followed him one day last week, Thomas filled nearly half a Moleskine notebook with the NFLPA logo on the cover with notes from his meetings and committee hearing sit-ins.

His goal for the week, he said, was to make connections with multiple Capitol Hill offices and learn how he could amplify policies — and tangible bills with real effects on real Americans — from his platform as an NFL athlete.

“The experience that he is gaining on Capitol Hill will be invaluable to not only building on the work he is already doing within the community, but also in continuing the great dialogue that we have seen within locker rooms among our men who are committed to using their platform, voice and constitutional rights for good,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. 

Feeling prejudice and injustice

It’s clear why Thomas feels compelled to speak so vociferously against racial prejudice and advocate for criminal justice system reform: he has lived it.

His parents both received their law degrees from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving back to Mississippi — where Thomas’ grandfather worked the sugar cane fields — to start a law firm: Thomas & Thomas.

When Thomas’ mother ran for a local bench seat in the early 1990s, the community backlash was considerable. Business took a hit. Thomas & Thomas folded.

“That was at a time where it was frowned upon for people of color, period, to run for judge, let alone a woman,” Thomas said. “My two older sisters, they grew up a whole different lifestyle than we did. By the time me and my sister right above me came, we’re talking about struggle, being poor.”

They had to forge ahead with new careers in education. His dad became a high school teacher. His mother started a charter school in the family’s home.

Eventually, when Thomas was entering third grade, the family moved to Houston to live with extended family for a time. They ended up staying.

In this Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, photo, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills (10), free safety Michael Thomas (31) and defensive back Chris Culliver (29) kneel during the National Anthem before the first half of an NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills in Miami Gardens, Fla. At least one website blamed Dolphins cornerback Byron Maxwell for getting burned last week on a 67-yard touchdown pass to the Buffalo Bills' Marquise Goodwin. Soon after the game, safety Thomas took to Twitter to take the blame. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, left, Thomas, and defensive back Chris Culliver kneel during the national anthem before the Dolphins’ game against the Buffalo Bills in October 2016. (Wilfredo Lee/AP file photo)

Around 10:45 a.m. last Thursday, Thomas was sitting at his desk in Jackson Lee’s Rayburn office foyer when a staffer alerted him he had a call waiting on his landline. He picked up the phone.

“This is Michael.”

After a handful of nervous “Yes, ma’ams” and head nods, he set the phone down, flashing a smile of delighted bewilderment.

It was Jackson Lee.

She was heading back to the office before the next votes so they could strategize a post-internship game plan.

They both want something from each other: Jackson Lee wants more spokespeople, messengers — specifically ones who aren’t in politics. Thomas and his fellow “athlete activists” want real policy solutions they can broadcast.

For those who boycotted the NFL last season because athletes used the field as a platform for political demonstration — well, sorry. Looks like it’s here to stay.

Policy meets prominence

The alliance between politicians and athletes, Jackson Lee said, is where “policy meets prominence.”

“You have standing, stature, and we’re trying to generate policy,” she told Thomas.

In their meeting, Jackson Lee urged Thomas to continue his work with poor children and to advocate for juvenile detention center reform.

“I want to save those kids,” Jackson Lee said. “I want those kids playing on the football field, the basketball court, being an astronaut, being a doctor ... Not, ‘I’m in a juvenile detention center, and that’s all I can do.’”

Tackling juvenile detention reform could well be a beta test for the budding relationship between athletes and members of Congress.

But Thomas, Kaepernick and others are thinking bigger.

“There’s a wave going around across the league,” Thomas said. Players from multiple teams keep in touch via a group text about how to move their agenda forward.

Opinions vary.

“Let’s do something less divisive. Let’s do something where it’s unity, let’s talk about unity,” some have said privately, Thomas said.

Thomas is not one of those voices. He wants to topple what he sees as an unfair and unjust societal system.

“I’m not talking about unity. I’m not trying to fight for unity,” Thomas said. “I’m trying to fight to end systemic oppression. I’m trying to fight for social justice. I’m trying to fight so that people who commit crimes like unjust murders — they should be held accountable.”

Thomas clearly wants to keep his conversation with lawmakers on Capitol Hill aflame.

On his way to a photo-op on the House steps with Jackson Lee — one she takes with every intern on her staff before they leave — Thomas saw Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush slip out of his office on the way to votes. He introduced himself and said he would like to set up a meeting with the congressman. Rush agreed.

After the photo-op with Jackson Lee, the congresswoman and Thomas conversed in private in front of a Capitol Dome backdrop for nearly 10 minutes as their respective handlers looked on.

They hugged and said their goodbyes, and Jackson Lee began climbing back up the steps that only members are allowed to ascend. She looked at Thomas.

“We’ll be in touch,” she said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.