If you could choose one person who understands the controversy surrounding the NFL protests for justice and equality, someone who played more than a decade and a half in the NFL might have insight into the issue. If that person’s résumé included a stint as the head of the players union, a job working in player engagement, years of social activism and a post in the NFL’s front office, that person might have a unique perspective on the subject.
Troy Vincent is that man.
Vincent is the NFL executive vice president of football operations, which makes him responsible for the competitive aspects of the game, including officiating, coaching development, and making sure every action on the field is fair to the teams and interesting to the NFL audience.
But his life and faith have placed him in the unique position to influence both the sport and the world. For more than 25 years, he has been a leader, activist and philanthropist, serving his community, the game of football and the men who compete on the gridiron. Lately, Vincent has become one of the leading voices engaging players and owners on both sides of the debate about player protests, injustice and inequality.
Ostensibly, the former star cornerback is charged with the competitive and technical inner workings of the sport, but Vincent also feels compelled to serve as a leader in bringing different factions together.
“My role is to facilitate those healthy conversations among communities, players, the commissioner’s office, owners,” Vincent told The Root in an exclusive interview. “Every day I ask God to help me help other people understand this issue and to find solutions.”
Growing up in the projects of Trenton, N.J., as a survivor of domestic violence, Vincent was a basketball and track athlete. He didn’t even begin playing football until his senior year of high school, when a gym teacher suggested that he try out for the football team.
Even with just one year of experience at the high school level, his athleticism and ability earned him a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. Eventually selected by the Miami Dolphins in the first round of the 1992 draft, Vincent played 16 seasons in the NFL with the Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles and the Buffalo Bills.
Despite making five consecutive Pro Bowls as a cornerback for the Eagles and being selected to the NFL’s All-Pro team, it was Vincent’s off-the-field leadership and activism that shone throughout his career.
In 2002 he received the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year award, honoring his volunteer and charity work. He has received every award for philanthropy offered by the NFL, the Players Association and the league’s executives. Vincent also served as president of the NFL Players Association from 2004 to 2008.
The father of five children, Vincent spent his playing career championing social justice, civil rights and gender equality. He is a longtime advocate against domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
As a player with the Buffalo Bills, Vincent approached the Wharton School of Business about starting a program to teach NFL players about business, money management and investment. The program eventually blossomed into the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program, which has taught many players about preparing for life after football.
While Vincent can somehow wax poetic about the intricacies of football, competitive balance and the flow of the game, he believes that his true value lies in leadership and advocacy.
As a former president of the NFLPA, as well as a strong supporter of player rights and a front-office executive, he is uniquely qualified to speak to the concerns regarding the ongoing debate about players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.
“My role is to facilitate those healthy conversations among communities, players, owners and the commissioner’s office; I don’t want anyone mischaracterized in what has become a public debate. That includes players, owners, law enforcement, and the men and women of the armed forces,” Vincent explained. “My responsibility is to make sure I am a bridge builder.”
Vincent revealed that conversations among the NFL, owners and players had been happening behind the scenes before the protests became a public story. He said the NFL’s hope was that the recent meeting between the players and the owners would bring about some actionable items that owners, players and communities could partner to address.
When asked whether the league would have addressed these concerns if players had not protested, Vincent said that the league has always looked to partner with players on social movements and community projects. But Vincent admits that the scattered demonstrations started by Colin Kaepernick did initiate an urgency to work diligently on surrounding issues.
“It created an unprecedented dialogue. Unprecedented,” he said. “We’re now having ongoing discussions about solutions, plans and action items. We want to come to a resolution for our, fans, sponsors and owners.”
Owners have since made plans to meet with players again next week to discuss specific plans for addressing social issues. Some team owners who were against the player protests have since changed their minds and want to partner with players to start, volunteer for or fund programs that focus on education, racial inequality and criminal-justice reform. The commissioner’s office has also informed players that there will be no rule change forcing them to stand for the national anthem.
It is impossible to say whether or not this would have happened without the protests; nor does anyone hold the NFL owners responsible for systemic inequality. But Vincent explained that leadership requires understanding, humility and faith.
“All I can do is to ask God to use me today in this meeting, in this conversation, to find solutions,” he said. “That’s been my focus in this storm. To ask how we create solutions for change.”