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Williams: In conflating social justice protests with an attempted coup, Jack Del Rio undermined the Washington Commanders. He needs to go.

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Commanders Football

Washington Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio attended a team practice at Inova Sports Performance Center in Ashburn on Wednesday.

I’m not a “shut up and dribble” guy when it comes to athletes. Nor am I a “shut up and coach” guy.

I related to the frustrations of basketball coach Steve Kerr, following the mass shooting at an Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, about our chronic inaction on gun violence. But free speech does not free the outspoken from consequences, as the blackballed Colin Kaepernick has learned.

Which brings us to Jack Del Rio, the defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders football team, who recently called the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection a “dust-up” and wondered why more scrutiny isn’t being focused on the 2020 protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“Would love to understand ‘the whole story’ about why the summer of riots, looting, burning and the destruction of personal property is never discussed but this is??? #CommonSense,” he tweeted last Monday.

Thursday evening, I watched the hearing of the House select committee investigating the insurrection — a session that included riveting testimony from U.S. Capitol police officer Caroline Edwards.

“I was slipping in people’s blood,” Edwards said, describing as “a war scene” what Del Rio called a “dust-up.”

Del Rio wants to hold protesters (many of them arrested, charged, convicted or unduly abused, in Richmond and elsewhere) accountable. He’s less interested in the circumstances surrounding an unprecedented attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power during the most grievous assault on the U.S. Capitol since the British burned it during the War of 1812.

“It’s unfortunate that you had to defend the Capitol from fellow Americans,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat chairing the committee, told Edwards.

Whatever you think of my opinions, I’m paid for them. Del Rio? He’s paid to shape a winning defense. Last season, Washington’s defense ranked 25th among 32 teams. Given this performance, Del Rio is more trouble than he’s worth.

His tweet conflated nationwide protests against the killing of unarmed Black people by agents of the state with a violent attempt by a mob — stoked by loser Donald Trump — to overturn the results of a presidential election.

The result further tarnished an underachieving sports franchise grappling with its history of racism and current allegations of sexual misconduct against its owner, Daniel Snyder.

My Dad despised this team during my childhood for good reason. Its racism went well beyond its former, blatantly offensive nickname. George Preston Marshall, its longtime owner, fancied his team as Dixie’s standard bearer. As befits an organization with this Southern strategy, Washington, in 1962, became the last team in professional football to integrate.

During the 2020 summer of protest, the Washington football team shed its noxious nickname and instituted social justice initiatives. The Commanders’ team president, Jason Wright, is African American, as is general manager Martin Mayhew.

Del Rio has undermined all of that.

Days after his tweet, Virginia lawmakers tabled a proposal on a new Northern Virginia stadium for the Commanders, saying the matter needs more work. And Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, called for Del Rio to resign or be fired.

“The January 6th insurrection — an attempted coup — was far from a ‘dust-up’. Each day we learn more and more on just how close our democracy came to autocracy,” Johnson said in a statement. “Downplaying the insurrection by comparing it to nationwide protests, which were in response to a public lynching, is twisted. You can’t coach a majority Black team while turning your back on the Black community.”

Del Rio issued the obligatory half-hearted apology for his “dust-up” comment, calling it “irresponsible and negligent,” in a statement posted on Twitter. But he added: “I stand by my comments condemning violence in communities across the country. I say that while also expressing my support as an American citizen for peaceful protest in our country. I have fully supported all peaceful protests in America.”

Uh, no.

In August 2016, as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Del Rio took a dim view of players like Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

“In America, as individuals, we all have freedoms, and that’s one of the things that makes our country great,” he said in the San Jose Mercury News. “For us, I think it’s more about recognizing that you’re part of an organization. You’re representing our organization, and our organization believes that you should pay respect to the flag. Save those individual decisions to express yourself for an individual forum.”

Del Rio now represents the Washington Commanders, but does not appear to share the values that organization aspires to. His respect for the flag and our Constitution seem to have curious limits.

The Commanders’ allegiance to Del Rio, in this context, is untenable. He needs to go.

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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