Bengals On A Mission

Giovani Bernard has been one of the team leaders this week.
Giovani Bernard has been one of the team leaders this week.

Before the Bengals went out to practice Friday to work on short-yardage, they went to work on a long-term social justice mission statement they hope to release as soon as Saturday.

Written by center Trey Hopkins, shepherded by running back Giovani Bernard and emboldened by Friday morning's meeting with Bengals president Mike Brown, some of the veterans close to the process are excited about what is on the verge of transpiring.

"I feel very encouraged and excited about what possibilities we may have in the future knowing we have the support of the entire organization," said defensive end Carlos Dunlap of ownership. "They're with us. They see what's going on. They were showing empathy. They want to know exactly how they can affect and bring about change and they want us to come up with a plan of action."

Bernard, the eight-year vet who is a member of head coach Zac Taylor's leadership committee and ownership's Positive Community Impact Committee targeting social justice issues, is a natural conduit from the players to the community. The son of a self-made Haitian immigrant, Bernard is charismatic, passionate and highly-regarded in the locker room.

"There are a lot of guys in this. They're a lot of behind-the-scenes guys," Bernard said Friday night. "We wanted everybody's ideas. We wanted everybody at the table. We want the team to express its feelings. We heard from everybody and we got about 12 guys to nail down a rough draft and we're still working on it."

Bernard said the meeting with Brown and his family ownership group "went awesome." Also involved were director of player personnel Duke Tobin, Taylor, some of his coaches, veterans like Bernard, Dunlap and A.J. Green, free-agent newcomers like linebacker Josh Bynes and young players like rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. About 15 players were in the socially distanced meeting that took place in one of Paul Brown Stadium's cavernous auditoriums.

In the building named after the man that helped break the color line in pro football as head coach of the 1946 Cleveland Browns, his son Mike not only spoke to a new generation of players, but he listened, they said.

"He really nailed down a lot of the things that have been going in our society," said Bernard of the 85-year-old Brown. "He spoke passionately about how Mr. Paul Brown was a pioneer in getting black players into pro football. I've heard the stories, but it was great for the new guys because it gave them an opportunity for them to hear about the history of the family and how vital it is to what's going on today."

Taylor saw what a huge impact Brown's appearance made. Hopkins said the most impressive thing about it is they told him Wednesday they wanted to meet and he arranged the meeting as soon as possible for first thing Thursday morning.

"It certainly speaks to Mike and the family that they were able to engage with the players in this way," Taylor said. "I know it means a lot to the players and they really appreciated that. I know they shared that with me and they shared that with Mike and everyone else. They got to see what I see every single day: that's a very supportive and understanding ownership group that is there for the players and loves these players."

Hopkins, a seventh-year Bengal, knows the history. But to see Mike Brown in the room at the players' invite…

"It was something that a lot of guys, we just wanted to meet with him and talk to him about our ideas," Hopkins said, "and the fact that ownership would come and listen and be receptive about something that is important to their players I think speaks a lot to how much they truly care about the players and the organization as a whole."

Bernard indicated the mission statement is going to touch on systematic racism and how a diverse NFL locker room is a model for society.

"You never think if a guy is white or black," Bernard said. "Is he a good player? Is he a good guy? Can he help us win?"

He also said the team hopes to be showcasing in the coming weeks on social media different players' stories about their experiences with racism. In the last 48 hours, they've heard plenty of stunning, sickening stories from each other and Taylor had to admit that it opened up his eyes.

"Some of the experiences that our players share, and I'm not going to name the players' names, because there are plenty of them, but those are things I never thought about growing up in Norman, Okla., or living in the places I've lived," Taylor said. "I've never thought twice about some of the things these players have to think about when they just go about their daily lives and their cousins and their friends and families back in their communities. That is something that has impacted me personally. I've thought myself as aware and understanding, but until you hear first-hand very raw stories then you really don't know unless you've been in those situations. I think a lot of people are taking that away from those conversation."

Hopkins doesn't have a story. He has a life. During a remarkable media Zoom on Friday, he painted a masterpiece of what it was like to grow up black in east Houston. And how the impact is still there because even though he's a 30-year-old starting NFL center, whenever he arrives or leaves home on a visit his mother wants to make sure his license and registration is in the cup holder and not in the glove compartment or a pocket so he doesn't have to reach.

"There have been times I've been accused of stealing. Corpus Christi, Texas. Walked into a gas station with a pair of sunglasses on my head, got a bag of chips, walked out of the store, me and my family, and the cashier ran out of the store and grabbed me by my arm and said. 'Sir, you stole from us,'" Hopkins recalled with chilling clarity. "I don't even know if they were selling glasses in the store. Or just being accused of it. But my family has always made it known that these are the things you have to be aware of.

"You have to be aware of your presence. You have to be aware of how you look. Just because a simple misunderstanding like that could end up being much larger. That person could have called the police like the police were called on George Floyd for that $20 bill. It could be one of those situations that unfortunately you never know how they can escalate and how they can get out of control … I was aware as early as the fourth, fifth grade. My parents, my mom made me very aware. It's not walking on eggshells, but you have to explicitly not be stealing. You have to be over the top with your honesty. When I'm walking through the store, 'These are the thing I have. Here is my receipt. Don't put the receipt in your bag before you walk out of the store.' Those kinds of things."

It is those kinds of things they hope to address with ownership at their side.

"They want to be a part of the solution," Dunlap said. "They want us to make a plan of action."

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