Russell Wilson — all of 25 years old, barely into his third pro season — has succeeded where Roger Goodell, the well-connected team owners for whom the commissioner works and the rest of the NFL have failed.
The face of the Seahawks has become the league’s — and in fact America’s — athlete front man against domestic violence.
Wilson’s ingredients: an article he wrote this week on Derek Jeter’s new athlete website, motivation following a childhood of bullying, a huge platform no other quarterback on the planet currently has, plus a purple Pass the Peace hoodie he wore Friday at Seahawks headquarters.
Why now and why this issue, domestic violence, the hottest-button topic in the NFL?
“Some things you don’t have to shy away from. You know what’s right, you know what’s wrong,” Wilson said before practice for Monday’s game at Washington.
“I don’t need to go into what I think people did right or wrong. I don’t think that’s my part. But the whole idea of the Why Not You foundation and the whole idea of Pass the Peace is, ‘What can we do to move forward? What can we do now and what can we do in the future?’ And that’s why the Why Not You Foundation wants to support and help.”
Wilson was speaking a day after he wrote in his new role as senior editor of Jeter’s The Players’ Tribune, a site designed to interface directly with fans. Wilson is normally conservative and avoids controversy, while being almost scripted as a public speaker.
This time, though, the script delivered a message no one else in the league — chiefly Goodell — has been able to clearly or effectively articulate. Those failures have been stark and damaging in the wake of the recent domestic violence cases of now-former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer. That’s not to mention the up to 10,000 battered Americans who, domestic-abuse activists have told Wilson, get turned away each day from shelters due to lack of resources.
Wilson’s aim here is bigger than a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
He first enlisted Jeter, the now-retired New York Yankees shortstop, and pop music icon Justin Timberlake to his cause of donating $2 or more to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline.
Jeter and Timberlake in turn have enlisted late-night television host Jimmy Fallon. And so on.
By reaching his own personal goal of asking two new people each day to give, Wilson says he wants to change attitudes, change behaviors, change society.
“If I hadn’t won a Super Bowl I don’t know if it would have quite as huge of an effect,” he said. “I don’t think the effect comes through me, though. That’s the great thing about it. I think the effect comes through other people. And I’m just a small little part of it. I just had the idea. I just wanted to pass it on.
“So for me hopefully it becomes like wildfire, where everybody wants to Pass the Peace and throw up their two fingers. Hopefully (it can) change the generation — and change the world. Because it’s not just an NFL issue, it’s not just a sports issue. This is across the United States.”
Wilson said he called domestic abuse specialists and was told “over 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 people a day” are turned away from shelters because there is not enough room and no enough counseling for victims of domestic violence.
“So hopefully this money that we raise is good enough to build more shelters,” he said, “good enough to bring more counselors in and help more people.’’
Not the normal fare for an NFL quarterback, to be sure.
And definitely not where Wilson has been during his first two-plus seasons as Seattle’s starting quarterback.
“I’ve tended to avoid controversial topics throughout my career, but in my first piece for The Players’ Tribune, I wanted to be open and address something that’s important, timely and relevant.” Wilson wrote on Jeter’s new site. “I’ve been silent on the issue for too long, falling back on the ‘I can’t speak to someone else’s personal life’ excuse. But victims need physical, emotional and financial support and care, and the resources to get away from their abusers. Abusers, you need to get help — you can change.”
Wilson said he was inspired to step up last week while traveling to California during the Seahawks’ bye and listening to a favorite artist of his, Michael Jackson, and the song “Man in the Mirror.” Wilson then discussed his ideas with coach Pete Carroll, among others, before his story appeared Tuesday on The Players’ Tribune.
“I’m really proud of him,” Carroll said. “He’s involved himself in a very critical issue that maybe he can elevate awareness like we’re all trying to do, for the right reasons.
“ ‘Pass The Peace’ is a pretty cool thought. And I think it fits him very well. …We will support him in every way.”
Wilson said Jeter approached him months ago to be the first contributor to his new athletes’ site. Jeter then met with Wilson on the hush-hush in early June, during the Yankees’ lone trip into Seattle for a series with the Mariners.
Wilson talked Friday about how big a bully he was until age 14, when he said he was “saved” by new religious faith.
“I was just so competitive. I thought I owned the playground. I thought I owned the classroom. I thought I was bigger than who I was,” Wilson said of being a boy in Richmond, Virginia. “I thought I would never get in trouble for anything. I thought that was the way to go. I thought that was being a man, as a young kid, for whatever reason. And so, for me, once I transitioned — my faith really grew when I was 14 years old — so once I kind of got that in my life I knew what to focus my life on.
“And I’m not perfect by any means now. But at the same time, I know that God’s grace and what He gives me and how he’s blessed me is something that’s truly special. And I try to share that with other people.”
What did Wilson do to other kids?
“Oh, man. Knock people’s teeth out on a regular basis, probably,” he said. “Used to bang their heads up against the wall. Used to throw them against the wall. I used to cuss all the time. I used to be a bad kid, man.
“But I grew from that. Back then it was one of those things that I was kind of immature. Now I transitioned into this maturation — big time.”
That admission caught his teammates’ attention.
“He said that he use to beat people up. That’s a surprise,” said cornerback Richard Sherman, who is more used to being a front man for attention and causes. “Obviously he said he’s turned a different page in that book, but it’s still pretty interesting to see that.”
While some top athletes reap the riches of our society but give very little back, Wilson is trying to, as he put it, “empower people … and make a difference in the world.”
Yes, he also talked about Washington’s defense and striving again to be “on schedule” with everything he and the Seahawks offense does Monday night. But that was only a small portion of his talk Friday.
Given the seriousness of the issue Wilson is now championing, that’s how it should have been.