How a group of Seahawks donated — perhaps unwittingly — to politicians who oppose their views

©The Seattle Times

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson warms up prior to action against the Minnesota Vikings on October 11, 2020, at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. - Dean Rutz/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Congressman Anthony Gonzalez aren’t exactly known for supporting the actions or wishes of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

Tillis, of North Carolina, has openly scolded players for “commandeering” football games in support of racial equality and against police brutality, while former NFL wideout Gonzalez, of Ohio, maintains he always stood at attention out of “gratitude” for the nation’s troops and “how lucky” he was to be an American. When a House bill was put forth in June to curb police powers after George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Gonzalez continued voting in lockstep with the wishes of President Donald Trump and opposed the proposal.

And then there’s Lindsey Graham, the influential Republican senator from South Carolina, who insisted this month that his state and its police aren’t racist and that Black people and immigrants can “go anywhere” in politics within it but “need to be conservative” and “share our values.”

Still, some prominent Seahawks espousing very different views on racism, protests and police brutality have actually — perhaps unwittingly — contributed to the reelection campaigns of all three men. Among them: quarterback Russell Wilson, linebacker K.J. Wright and wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who all made strong public statements this summer supportive of player and citizen protests to end racial injustice.

Their donations weren’t made directly, but through a relatively nascent political action committee (PAC) run by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) and financially supported by more than 90% of its membership. While the NFLPA One Team PAC lobbies federally on narrowly focused issues — like health and safety standards, and namesake and likeness rights — this summer’s tumultuous events do cast an interesting light on contributions to politicians whose core views appear to conflict with those increasingly vocalized by numerous players.

NFLPA Assistant Executive Director George Atallah said a player advisory committee — no Seahawks are on it — monitors statements by politicians ahead of decisions to forward PAC money and any player can obtain specifics about where contributions go and why. Atallah said the union’s membership is composed of players supporting both major political parties and that One Team is critical to the NFLPA engaging politicians on key issues, just as league owners have done through their own PAC since 2008.

Still, One Team remains the only player-run PAC among this country’s major professional sports leagues and is an idea the union’s previous leadership resisted because of potential conflicts.

Doug Allen, a longtime executive with the NFLPA, told Sports Business Journal in July 2016 that former Executive Director Gene Upshaw worried in the 1980s and 1990s about a PAC creating conflict between the league’s then-largely conservative player base and the progressive causes he envisioned supporting.

“We would have divided the membership politically by formally endorsing and helping to fund politicians who were pro-labor and pro-player but were socially progressive rather than conservative,” Allen said in 2016.

Upshaw died in 2008 and was replaced by current NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith during a period when player health and safety issues began being thrust into greater prominence, leading to the PAC’s creation.

Now, Upshaw’s decades-old concerns appear to be surfacing somewhat in reverse: players’ money going to socially conservative politicians whose stated positions are increasingly at odds with a sizable portion of socially progressive and highly vocal NFLPA members.

Wilson, Wright and Lockett, among 17 players on the Seahawks roster when they made PAC donations in February for the current election cycle, declined to comment when approached by The Seattle Times through the team about whether they’d known which candidates received PAC money — instead deferring to the NFLPA to speak for them. Federal records show Wilson, Wright and Lockett each gave $500 to the PAC, as did Rashaad Penny, C.J. Prosise, Al Woods, Ethan Pocic, Kyle Fuller, Poona Ford, Bradley McDougald, Emmanuel Ellerbee, David Moore, Nick Bellore, Jaron Brown and Ziggy Ansah.

Quinton Jefferson and Branden Jackson each gave $250.

Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehi, Bruce Irvin, B.J. Finney, Phillip Dorsett II, Jonathan Bullard and Josh Gordon weren’t yet with the team when they each donated $500. Sixteen current Seahawks donated to the PAC in February, and more than 600 players leaguewide donated just over $366,000 this year, including $5,000 each by then-Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, and Detroit Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis, and $1,000 by ex-Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.

It isn’t unusual for unions of all kinds to sometimes donate to politicians supportive of their collective interests and not necessarily the views of individual workers. But what’s unusual here is that NFL players have a national platform most other rank and file union members lack, and have increasingly used it this year to make their stances on racial issues widely known.

Amid nationwide uproar over Floyd’s killing in May by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe, Wilson said, “Racism is as real as it’s ever been. It’s staggering. … I think that the reality is enough is enough with the situation. The reality is that I think that we have to understand that Black lives do matter. It’s a group of people who are being brutally murdered because of the color of their skin.”

Wilson supports former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the anthem to protest police brutality. And he felt police overreacted to public protests over Floyd.

“People are protesting, and we have police and National Guard coming in, and it’s overwhelming and not allowing them to do what their right is, and that’s to protest peacefully,” Wilson said. “And that’s a shame.”

Wright posted to Instagram following Floyd’s killing that he would make it his “life’s mission” to address issues of racial injustice.

“Enough has been enough,” wrote Wright, a Mississippi native who has also called for the abolition of the Confederate flag. “It’s for uncomfortable conversations, for people to get out their bubble, laws need to be changed, mindsets need to be shifted and about all. MORE LOVE needs to be spread. We all have a platform, let’s do our part in making this country better.”

Lockett, the team’s NFLPA player representative, posted a poem he’d written after Floyd’s death about police brutality and players kneeling. One passage reads: “But we tired of seeing cops, and the way they enforce us. But if we take a knee, that’s when they light their torches. And when we start to speak, that’s when we lose our endorsements.”

The One Team PAC also contributes money to Democratic candidates, and the NFLPA maintains it splits funds as evenly as possible between parties depending on who holds power within legislative bodies; meaning Senate Republicans and House Democrats currently receive the largest share.

The PAC’s charter prevents donations to presidential candidates, but records show One Team contributions totaling $82,500 to committees of 30 politicians overall during this 2019-20 election cycle — 28 members of Congress and two governors, among them 19 Democrats and 11 Republicans.

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott got $2,500, as did Democratic New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. Senate recipients included nine Republicans and three Democrats — Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., among them. House donations went to 15 Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., with only Gonzalez getting money on the Republican side.

Overall, Democrats received $42,500 in PAC funding, Republicans $40,000.

But Republicans received the biggest single amounts, with Tillis and former Indianapolis Colts receiver Gonzalez getting $7,500 apiece while Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota received $5,000. All others received $2,500 each.

The four-figure dollar amounts donated are relatively nominal compared to the tens of millions being spent by campaigns; the NFLPA says it makes the donations anyway to gain invitations to private events where it’ll have greater access to politicians and information about upcoming legislative proceedings.

Still, the fact remains players such as Wilson, Wright and Lockett and others leaguewide are indirectly financing politicians espousing views contrary to some of their own prominently stated positions on racial strife at a time money and symbolism are playing major roles in key national races.

Tillis and Graham are engaged in neck-and-neck struggles against challengers in races that could swing the Senate. Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham is poised to unseat Tillis in North Carolina, while polls show Jaime Harrison, who is Black, with a slight lead over Graham in South Carolina.

Cunningham and Harrison did not receive One Team funding.

Atallah said the contribution was made to Graham because he chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which holds sway over several labor issues. Tillis chairs a subcommittee on intellectual property dealing specifically with name, image and likeness issues the players union has sought greater control over. Gonzalez is the Republican congressional point man on the same name, image and likeness issues.

Among other Republicans receiving One Team money — $5,000 last March — was Thune, who chairs the Senate commerce committee overseeing other NFLPA issues.

Thune, like Graham, has taken a lead role advocating for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, whose nomination drew sharp criticism from many Black-led groups. The NAACP, among others, says Barrett ignored the 1964 Civil Rights Act by siding with appellate judges who in 2017 ruled 4-3 against holding a full court rehearing of a dismissed case against a national auto parts company accused of racially segregating employees.

Barrett also authored an opinion in a case last year that said being called the “n-word” at work does not automatically constitute a hostile work environment.

Data gathered by the statistical website FiveThirtyEight.com shows Thune has sided with Trump positions in 94.3% of his Senate votes.

Graham sided with Trump 87.2% of the time in Senate voting, morphing from one of the president’s harshest critics to among his staunchest allies. Besides the comments this month about politicians of color needing to share South Carolina’s “values” to succeed, Graham drew criticism in August for stating Trump isn’t racist and likes people whether they are “albino” or “black as coal.”

Tillis this month announced he’d been infected by the coronavirus after attending a White House ceremony — since described as a “super-spreader” event — hosted by Trump to announce Barrett’s nomination. Tillis has sided with Trump in 93.4% of his Senate votes. A pair of $2,500 One Team PAC contributions Tillis received in late 2019 came well after his September 2017 interview on a North Carolina radio show applauding that only one member of the Carolina Panthers had knelt during the anthem before a previous day’s game.

“I for one, being a season-ticket holder and a die-hard Panthers fan, was glad to see that all but one decided not to become a part of this — a part of this controversy — and that made me proud of the standing Panthers that have shown respect for the flag and for the anthem,” Tillis said, adding: “We’ve got to get to a point to where we’re having a reasonable discussion. When we can hold out as heroes, people who take a knee and protest but then those same people think it’s all right to fire a high school coach who knelt and prayed at the end of a game, we’ve got something wrong there.

“Either both of those are expressions of free speech, or neither of those are appropriate behaviors in a football stadium. … On Sunday at kickoff time, I don’t want to talk about politics, I want to watch a good football game.”

Amid nationwide June demonstrations against Floyd’s killing, Tillis issued a YouTube statement condemning the death, but also “violent rioters” he said “co-opted” the protests.

“The violence and the madness must stop,” Tillis said. “Every elected official has an obligation to condemn this violence and call for the restoration of law and order.”

Tillis also was criticized last June for not immediately pulling a television commercial in which he appears alongside a restaurant owner accused of racial discrimination in a federal lawsuit. The TV spot was highlighting business owners struggling during the pandemic, but news outlets quickly linked the owner to the then-2-year-old lawsuit in which a former employee of the restaurant, who is Black, said she was fired after a white male co-worker called her the “n-word,” doused her with hot BBQ sauce and hit her with a metal pan. The co-worker was also fired, but he was rehired within months.

A jury two weeks ago found the restaurant wasn’t liable for the male employee’s conduct.

But a month after the June controversy over the TV ad, with the case still pending, Tillis received a $2,500 One Team contribution.

Congressional first-timer Gonzalez has supported Trump’s position in 92.8% of House votes, including opposing a bill last June aimed at curbing police brutality. The “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” lowers the criminal intent standard for police, limits their immunity from lawsuits resulting from their actions and authorizes the Department of Justice to investigate departments showing patterns of discrimination.

The bill nonetheless passed 236-181 and is now working its way through the Senate.

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©2020 The Seattle Times