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Kelly: Race, not sex, tackled in this locker room

October 16, 2016

Mike Kelly is a Record columnist. Contact him at kellym@northjersey.com.

A GROUP of men held a locker room-style meeting the other day. But it was not what you think — certainly not the self-professed “locker room banter” of Donald Trump.

The men did not brag about groping women.

They talked about race relations.

The informal gathering by members of the New York Giants football team to discuss America’s ongoing racial dilemma will probably not make it into the national presidential maelstrom. The meeting was barely mentioned in the torrent of sports coverage about the Giants as they prepared intensely for an important game against the Baltimore Ravens.

But this meeting is significant anyway — a bunch of guys who know the banter of locker rooms much better than Donald Trump, taking up a serious discussion of an important issue.

By gathering on their own turf specifically to talk about race issues, the Giants have shamed the political world — a world that has lost its focus and has sunken into debates over teenage-style sex bragging and sexual assaults of women while deftly avoiding the deep and important discussions about major issues pressing on the nation as voters prepare to select the next president.

Let’s be clear about something, however. The Giants did not solve any problems with this meeting. They merely talked about America’s troubled racial landscape after a workout at the team’s practice facility near MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.

Also important to note is the fact that not all members of the Giants team attended. Only about 25 players showed up – about half the roster. But the room was filled with a mix of black and white players, as well as Head Coach Ben McAdoo (who is white) and General Manager Jerry Reese (who is black). Witnesses say every player spoke.

Finally, let’s also be clear about something else. The accusations that Donald Trump habitually groped women are important and should be investigated. So are the lingering accusations that former President Bill Clinton may have assaulted women and that Hillary Clinton participated in efforts years ago to defame some of those women.

Ignoring key problems

But a rhetorical line has clearly been crossed in the current presidential campaign — a tipping point, perhaps, in which far too much time has been devoted to sex and not enough to the litany of serious problems now facing America, including race, terrorism, the economy, immigration and government finances, to name just a few issues.

Consider the first debate and Hillary Clinton’s accusations about Trump’s treatment of a beauty queen years ago. The issue was certainly important. But in a world now threatened by terrorism and economic fragility, were these nearly 20-year-old accusations about a beauty queen all that necessary?

Consider the second debate last Sunday. Angered by the talk about the beauty queen and perhaps trying to head off criticism from the revelations only days earlier that he bragged about attacking women, Trump struck back by inviting several women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misdeeds. Then, with these women sitting only a few feet from the former president during the debate, Trump lashed into the former president and then against Hillary.

Hillary Clinton fought back by attacking Trump for bragging in 2005 about groping women – a rhetorical milestone that was recorded by that paragon of journalistic excellence, the “Access Hollywood” TV show. Trump responded by denying he groped women, then launching into a promise to attack Islamic State terrorists.

The exchange was striking in that it was one of the few moments during the debate in which terrorism — and Trump’s response to it – was even mentioned. But it was lost in the flood of sex talk and accusations.

The irony of that moment — the combination of sex and terrorism in the same discussion — was horribly tragic. But this is the new normal for politics now. We talk terrorism in one breath, sex in another. And we do it in a 15-minute segment on a cable TV news show between commercials for car insurance or prescription drugs.

This is why the meeting by the Giants players was so crucial to reminding us of how far our national dialogue has fallen.

The idea for the meeting came from the players themselves – primarily Giants running back Rashad Jennings, who is black. The backdrop to Jennings’ concerns was the ongoing controversy over some football players on other NFL teams kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem before games in an attempt to draw attention to strained relations between blacks and police.

Jennings joined a text messaging group with more than 80 other NFL players to exchange ideas about race.

Stop and consider the irony in those texts. Here were football players texting about serious subjects, while Trump rises at 3 a.m. to text about sexual allegations against him. It almost seems like a script for “Saturday Night Live.” But, sadly, this is no comedy.

Jennings suggested a Giants team meeting. He wrote to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat and former Newark mayor who grew up in Harrington Park and played football for Stanford. Booker, the son of African-American parents who were closely aligned with the civil rights movement and campaigned to desegregate Bergen County’s overwhelmingly white towns, quickly accepted Jennings’ invitation to lead the team meeting.

To Booker’s credit — and to the credit of the Giants, too – the meeting did not become a political event. The media was barred from attending. But several reports indicate that players addressed a variety of issues, including the increase in shootings of African-Americans by police and the large numbers of black men who are sent to prison.

This is only a beginning, of course. And who knows where it might lead? Football players pass through teams all too quickly. So it may be difficult to continue these discussions for much longer than the current season.

But what happened with the Giants last week has offered a fresh perspective on “locker-room talk.” As Rashad Jennings told the New York Times: “It’s a start to begin focusing in on some of the things we want to do from our locker room.”

Imagine that. A locker room, with no sex talk.

Are the presidential candidates listening?

Don’t bet on it.