Carolina Panthers wide receiver Torrey Smith has long been outspoken about social justice issues and initiatives. He’s backed up the talk with action, supporting various foundations (and running one himself) that work to create equal opportunities for children and reform the criminal justice and legislative systems.
Wednesday, Smith, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Mike Adams introduced a new initiative by wearing shirts under their pads that featured a drawing of three children behind prison bars with the hashtag “#SchoolsNotPrisons.”
The back of the shirt featured this statement: “Nearly 5,000 kids are in adult prisons and jails.”
Other players around the league also wore the shirt.
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Smith spoke Thursday about the shirts, his message about social justice and equality, and his frustration this year as players’ messages about social inequality have gotten skewed and politicized.
On how the shirts came about
“The Players Coalition, the group that was founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcom Jenkins, (is trying) to figure out how we can go from protesting (racial and social inequities and police brutality to) ... actually go out and doing work in the community. It’s been going on for a year or two now.
“But (we are) really growing as an entity and trying to figure out different ways to get the message across without people trying to tie the anthem into it, or protesting or whatever it may be.”
On the message on the shirt
“Yesterday’s message was ‘schools not prisons’. Obviously we live in a society right now where we are building a lot of jails, but a lot of schools aren’t getting the funds they need, the resources they need.
“It kind of goes hand in hand. You have kids who aren’t educated or don’t have access to a quality education, and you tend to get in more trouble or not have the resources that they need to deal with their issues, whether that’s anger issues or family issues at home, which leads them to make a bad decision.
“For me, I’ve seen it firsthand in Baltimore with the way a lot of their public schools are, the lack of resources that they have in those schools, and knowing that they’re actually building a brand new jail when some of these kids have environments (at school) where the people who work there don’t even send their kids there. I think that says a lot.
“But I think it’s a simple shirt that means a lot, especially to a lot of the teachers out here. My wife is a teacher, so I know the hard work and sacrifices she put in. ... Teachers are also some of the most underpaid (people) in the world. And I think it says a lot about them as well.
“You need to give them the support they need, in addition to the things we can do at home.”
On the Players Coalition’s message being skewed
“It’s very frustrating when you have people try to paint Colin Kaepernick as a villain, or Eric Reid as a villain, when those are two of the best men that I’ve known and met over my lifetime.
“I think it’s very easy for people to get their emotions involved and forget about the reason why guys are protesting, (just because) of the method of protest.
“I know Eric Reid comes from a military family. I haven’t even protested, and I’ve had full-out debates with people who are yelling at me or tweeting me about taking a knee, and I didn’t even do it. So that goes to tell you what people know and what they don’t know. They’re just mad and don’t even know why.
“For me, I think it’s about continuing to do the right thing and continuing to press forward. Because it’s not really about continuing the protest. The message out there, we need to continue to figure out ways to really go about creating change. And I think that’s the process that we’re on right now.”
On if the players have more planned in the future
“Absolutely. I have plenty of things. Not just T-shirts to spread awareness, (although) eventually they will be ready to sell for a profit (that will go) to charities.
“For us, we just want to continue to focus on the work. You see guys from all around the league, each and every team, guys on their off days are out there doing work. But people don’t hear about that. You hear about a guy if he gets a DUI or does something stupid. I think that’s easy to make headlines.
“Guys who have been doing work in the community for a long time, now I think it’s more of a concentrated effort because I think guys realize the full potential and power that you have as players and influence that you have to really benefit your community.”
On inspiration for the shirt
“It’s a collective effort. It’s easy when you talk about the protests during the anthem, it tends to get an emotional reaction from people to where (they) don’t listen to what’s going on.
“When you do that to a T-shirt, we didn’t do anything. We went out to practice. Y’all saw it. We posted about it. And now people are talking about a particular subject.
“I think it was brilliant and I think more so than anything, we want to try to continue to get the message across the right way without offending people and having them turn the message. We are trying to control the narrative.”
Why what he’s doing is so personally important
“Everything that we fight for, I’ve personally lived it. Or I know someone who has. So when you talk about the issues of the criminal justice system, I grew up in a family where a lot of my family members are convicted felons.
“I also grew up in a family where I’ve had lawyers check into things now that I’m an adult who has made a decent amount of money to also know that they don’t understand why they were charged with a particular crime, or why it was at that level.
“I recognized since I was a kid that there are different issues dependent on where you’re from, the color of your skin, or how much money you make. And that’s not the way it should be.
“If we really want equality, specifically in the criminal justice system, when it comes to police brutality everyone sees me and thinks I’m a pretty clean-cut guy. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I might have gotten a speeding ticket here or there, but I don’t really do anything crazy. But I’ve had guns drawn on me on three different occasions by police officers. So I understand what it’s like to be profiled.
“For me, it’s important to speak out against that. It’s not always a race issue, but that’s a major piece of it. So for me to sit here and remain silent and not speak up on things that I know are wrong, when I know it affects me ... (sometimes) people are like, ‘Hey, it doesn’t affect you because of your situation.’
“Well, I’ve been in that situation. And nothing has changed for my family members, my cousins, the people from where I’m from. I want to figure out ways to help them and spread light to a particular situation, whatever it might be, and figure out as citizens a way to make America great for everyone.”