This season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers created the Social Justice Initiative aimed to create meaningful change in the Tampa Bay area. The year-long player-led program puts an emphasis on key pillars such as youth empowerment, police relations, criminal justice reform, racial equality and workforce development. The program is paired with the Social Justice Fund, which promises matching funds for player donations to parallel causes in the Tampa Bay area, up to $1 million through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation.
Players visited different areas of Tampa Bay to get a firsthand look at what issues and concerns the Bay area faces.
For the first event, Bucs players visited the Tampa Police Citizens Academy to participate in training drills with police officers and open up a dialogue about tough subjects surrounding police relations.
The day began around 10 a.m. and two of the first guys to speak were wide receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who along with left guard Ali Marpet and left tackle Donovan Smith, make up the 2018 Social Justice Player Board. They sat in a police training classroom with nine other teammates as they spoke openly with Police Chief Brian Dugan and Senior Corporal Jared Douds about concerns they had regarding police relations.
"Our motto is 'We are the Change' and that's what we want to be," McCoy added. "We don't want to be known as just football players. We have a huge platform here and we want to use it the right way. We're trying to do something about it, not just talk about it, but be about it."
The Buccaneers went on their second stop in the player-led Social Justice Initiative and joined Abe Brown Ministries on their campus to support the organization's Ready-4-Work Ex-Offender training program. Conversation focused on biases they face, how faith plays a role and what parallels can be drawn between the two groups. They heard first-hand accounts of the program's success, including one very special Tampa woman.
The woman, whose name has been omitted per request, is one of said clients and a graduate of the Ready4Work program. She got up to deliver a speech she had written while incarcerated. She told her story of growing up and watching her mother struggle with addiction. She endured years of sexual abuse by a family member and found herself on her own at a very young age before being sent to prison. Since being released, she completed the Ready4Work program and is now working in a public defender's office here in Tampa. She wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to take multiple buses in order to get her daughter to daycare and get to work on time – only to do it all again in the evenings.
Immediately following the visit on the bus ride back to AdventHealth Training Center, the players in attendance huddled in the back of the bus, talking about the effect Lee's story had had on them and what they could do to help.
"After we heard [her] story, we were asking questions and I just thought about how we could potentially help her," left tackle Donovan Smith said. "Someone who wakes up at 4 o'clock in the morning, taking five buses just to take her kid to school and get to work on time takes a lot of dedication and hard work. Going through everything she went through, it was very inspiring so we just came up with an idea of getting her Uber credits and/or a car that way she can get going."
That's exactly what they did.
She was then invited to AdventHealth Training Center for a tour and to watch practice. As the players came off the field, they surprised her with a $500 gift card to Uber so she can save some time during the day in the immediate future. Then came the big reveal. Through individual donations, Bucs players were able to chip in $10,000 to Abe Brown Ministries to go towards a car. Through the Bucs' Social Justice Fund, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation matched that amount to bring the total up to $20,000 toward a new set of wheels, and a new way of life, for one very special Tampa woman.
For their next event, players visited a juvenile detention facility to speak with boys ages 14-18 who are currently incarcerated. The players sat with the boys in groups and offered words of encouragement, also opening up the floor to questions the boys had. There was even a discussion that ended with a little bit of homework, with the players asking kids to write down one small step they can take right now in order to be successful. They went even further and went over each answer one-on-one with each child before they headed out the door. The highlight of the day came on the field, as it often does when football players are involved. Players went with the kids to the sand pit and were running drills and throwing footballs, while offering advice and speaking with kids one-on-one as they'd come off the field.
The last social justice program visit came when several Buccaneers players, including Gerald McCoy visited the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution in support of the Abe Brown Ministries Prison Crusade, aiming to give encouragement and uplifting messages through the Christian gospel to inmates at the facility. Players and inmates alike shared their testimonies and how faith plays a role in their lives, however different they may be. The visit was part of the Bucs' player-led Social Justice Initiative and the final event of the 2018 season.
Upon arriving, players were escorted into the chapel where over 100 inmates had gathered. They were received with thunderous applause and loud cheers as the jersey-clad athletes made their way up the center aisle to the front pews of the sun-lit room. In front, there was a raised stage where nine inmates stood with instruments, ready to lead the congregation in song to start the service.
McCoy sat with perfect posture, listening intently to a song the echoed words of redemption. Many players tapped their feet and nodded their heads with the music. By the time the band had moved on to the next song, some players had even taken to singing along. It was a moving rendition of a popular gospel song and each player seemed more affected than the last.
"People always think that we're going to come in encouraging them but the inmates here, the guys that shared their stories and testimonies, they encouraged us," offensive lineman Leonard Wester said. "I just wanted to share God's message that He loves them. He cares for them, He's going to pursue them and chase them their entire lives. He just wants to have a relationship with them."
The Social Justice Initiative will be continuing its efforts throughout 2019 with more visits on the way.