Browns speak out about social justice at stadium practice

Brian Dulik, AP

CLEVELAND (AP) — Kevin Stefanski waited years to conduct his first full practice as a head coach in an NFL stadium.

Some things, however, are more important to him than football.

Stefanski gathered his players, staff and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam near the west end zone at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday before beginning the session. He felt compelled to speak about the importance of social justice in his new community.

“It’s very appropriate that we have our families here with us because this is our Browns family,” Stefanski said, addressing the small number of family and friends in the stands.

“This family has some things that are weighing very heavily on their hearts and I want our players, who are so mindful and so intentional about their thoughts, to share those with this city, this community, Northeast Ohio and the football world.”

Quarterback Baker Mayfield, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and wide receiver Jarvis Landry followed the first-year coach to the microphone, reading statements on behalf of their teammates.

“You will see a specific focus in the form of concrete action by our organization, players, staff and ownership in these areas within Cleveland and Northeast Ohio to spur positive change, necessary change,” Landry said.

When they finished, the assembled group broke into applause and Stefanski blew his whistle to start the 90-minute practice, which was spirited, much like the messages that preceded it.

“We don’t want to make a statement just to make a statement — it’s not a PR stunt — we want to make a difference,” Mayfield said. “We want to take a unique approach and we have a bunch of people who are passionate about it.”

Across the NFL, several other teams have had similar conversations in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin last weekend.

Mayfield’s words carry significant weight because he’s the face of the franchise. And as a white man, he understands how important those words are to people who don’t have personal experience with racial injustice.

The 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick noted that the Browns’ social justice committee has identified four areas to focus on: education, police reform and accountability, economic advancement and nonpartisan voter registration, education and turnout.

The focus on education was about closing the “digital divide” and addressing resource equity, and improving economic advancement by supporting Black-owned businesses.

“(Me) being involved shows it’s not a one-sided movement,” said Mayfield, who is entering his third NFL season. “I can’t put myself in some of my teammates’ shoes, but I can hear their stories and try and understand, so I can push forward with them.”

Haslam was one of the first pro sports owners to begin a dialog with players on community issues, dating back to a 2016 controversy when then-Cleveland running back Isaiah Crowell posted a graphic image of a police officer getting his throat cut.

Former Vikings offensive coordinator Stefanski, who was hired by the Browns on Jan. 13, said he recognized the depth of his new team’s commitment upon moving to Cleveland. He held a series of team meetings Thursday at the suburban training facility but wanted to take the message to a broader audience when the team practiced downtown for the initial time.

“Here at the Cleveland Browns, that’s what we do, being active in the social justice arena,” Stefanski said.

“It was great to be out on the field here and to have some people in the stands, but we really want to shine a spotlight on our players and how they started practice with this statement. I’m very proud of them.”