Jerry Hughes is optimistic his two young children will live in a more equal America by the time they turn 30.
In the meantime, the Buffalo Bills defensive end and his teammates are focusing on what they can do to push the country in the right direction.
Hughes urged his fellow players to use their platforms to encourage voting and promote social justice when the Bills met Wednesday night to discuss their course of action as protests rippled throughout sports in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday.
"We spoke about it last night," Hughes told the media following the Bills' intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday. "What can we do collectively as a unit, as an organization, to let the outside world know, let the nation know, how do we feel, where do we stand?
"So, I think we're still working on what the appropriate message will be for us to come out and say. But I echoed to the guys that for us, we should start by using our platform and using our voice, because that is the biggest action that we have, to just voice equality."
The NBA's Milwaukee Bucks set the stage for the Wednesday's night of protests when they opted not to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, a decision that was soon followed by their opponent as well as the four other NBA teams scheduled to play that evening. Three WNBA games and three MLB games were also postponed.
Bills coach Sean McDermott called the team together for an open session in which players voiced their opinions on the state of social injustice and discussed next steps. The Bills ultimately did practice Thursday but promised the conversation would continue.
"It's always important to know what's going on in our world form a current events standpoint," McDermott said. "At the end of the day, we're all human. Even though we're in the bubble of the NFL or professional sports, we're all still a part of this world and this country.
"The other piece of it that's critical to me is that our players know we care about them and support them and are sensitive to the things that they've been around, seen in some ways as well. I think it's important that they know that they're being heard and they have a voice and that we support them."
Hughes and running back Devin Singletary both spoke after practice and described the meeting as an honest, emotional conversation in which the team's various upbringings and points of view were reflected.
"Everyone got up, voiced their opinion, said how they felt about what's taken place with the police brutality, with the marching, with the flag," Hughes said. "I think it was great. Because we have a lot of guys from all over the U.S. and I was telling the guys, you know, no one's opinion or no one's viewpoint is going to be the same. We all have different upbringings; we all have a different view on how things have taken place.
"I think that's what makes America such a great country, is we're all different. We all have our different religious beliefs, we all have our different political beliefs, but we can always come together under the fact that we love and respect each other because they're different."
Hughes hails from Sugar Land, Texas; Singletary is from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The two are separated by 10 years of age. But as Black men, both offered a similar sentiment in terms of their reaction to the shooting of the 29-year-old Blake, who remains partially paralyzed: It could have happened to them.
"Not to offend anyone, but sometimes ignorance needs to be educated and I think when people tell us, the athletes, just play football, focus on stuff like that, we have to remind them that once we take off that football jersey and we go home to our respective states or even by me driving to my house here in Buffalo, New York, I'm viewed as a Black man," Hughes said. "Not as a football player, not Jerry Hughes. I am a Black man. If they're looking for a Black man with curly hair on the streets, 6-2, I fit that description. That's who they're going to come after.
"I think people have to understand that. I think the more and more we talk about it, the more good, the more life we bring into the situation that, yeah, I play football, but no one knows that once I take my helmet off. They need to understand that this is what my father goes through, my siblings, my kids. People who look like me, they go through this on a daily basis where they can't throw out an NFL card that [can make an officer say], 'OK, I'll lower my gun and take my finger off the trigger because you play in the NFL.
"A lot of people aren't rewarded that fame pass, as I like to say. It is what it is. It's a fame pass that we get as athletes and so that's why we use this platform, because there's such a small percentage of athletes on this stage here doing this and there's so many more people who look like us who don't get the same treatments that we get. Do we think it's fair? No. Do we ask for it? No. But we do know at the end of the day when this game is done with, when we go home in the offseason – or, better yet, when I go home today and I'm walking around the streets of America – I'm still a black man.
Hughes continued: "I think people need to understand that, respect that, recognize it, and just view it for what it is. Understand that my social media platform, our social media platforms are here to bring knowledge and to bring awareness as to what goes on in the world because we're here to make this world a better place for my kids, for your kids, and for everyone else."
McDermott ensured conversations regarding social justice will continue moving forward. Singletary suggested the players might seek to partner with local organizations to promote their message, while Hughes continued to emphasize the importance of filling the ballot boxes in November.
"I just continue to echo to our guys, when you're out there on your social media platform or your speaking to the media … make sure you really use your voice and let the people know the importance of voting – that's one of the things we speak about – and how one, you've got to get registered, and two, you've got to vote so you can exercise the simple American liberties that we have in this country," Hughes said.
"Some countries don't allow you to participate in a vote. … Since we have a democracy, feel free to participate. And it starts with your local legislation all the way up to the state, even to the president of the United States. So, there's so much you can affect and so much change you can make by using your voice and voting."