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Falcons' Blank supports social reform but hopes games go on

ATLANTA (AP) — Arthur Blank's support of the movement to bring attention to social injustice has been celebrated by his Atlanta Falcons players.

Blank just hopes the Falcons can continue those efforts without following players in other sports who walked away from games.

“I would say my hope is that would not be the case,” Blank told The Associated Press on Friday when asked if he would support players opting out of games as a form of social protest. “I’m not saying it’s wrong. I do believe in peaceful protest.”

Blank, who owns the Falcons and Atlanta United of Major League Soccer, on Friday remembered recent conversations with the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who were leaders of the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King.

Blank said Lewis and Young “reminded me separately, individually, that we’ve made a lot of progress since they were early disciples, walking shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King. But we’re not where we need to be and there needs to be heightened focus and proper spotlight on these issues. Yet they both were very optimistic about our ability to get better in the future and I am as well.”

Blank devoted a chapter of his new book “Good Company” to social protest, including the NFL's response to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in 2016.

Blank said he agrees with recent statements by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that the league should have supported Kaepernick.

“I think the commissioner made it very clear that probably the understanding of where Colin Kaepernick was coming from back in 2016 wasn’t as clear to us then as it is to us now,” Blank said, adding other NFL owners “feel the same way that hopefully most Americans feel, hopefully all Americans feel, there are some injustices that need to be balanced out. There is a sense of urgency about moving the ball down the field.”

That sense of urgency became impossible for fans of almost any sport to ignore this week. A movement started by the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks led to other NBA playoff games and NFL practices by nine teams being postponed on Thursday. WNBA, MLS and Major League Baseball games also were not played. Some college football practices also were called off.

Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, a member of the team's social justice committee, says Blank was on the right side of the issue long ago.

“When all the Colin Kaepernick things were going on, it was cool to see Mr. Blank separate himself and not follow the rest of the pack of the rest of the teams,” Allen said earlier this month. “Just for him to get out in front, and everything we’ve needed, everything we’ve said as players, I can 100 percent tell you that our team has backed us and tried their hardest to get the answers or find a way for us to get the answers.”

Falcons defensive end Steven Means had similar praise this week for coach Dan Quinn, who took time away from the team's training camp schedule to participate in the social injustice conversation.

“Coaches hold this time as precious,” Means said. “If you’ve got a coach willing to cancel a meeting or he’s going to give us the opportunity to be able to take away moments from his schedule, that’s big and we have it here and it looks like other teams have it too. I think that’s big for everybody starting to take this turn.”

The Falcons did not join other teams that canceled practice this week. Atlanta players say they have not decided what actions they might consider during the season.

The Falcons open their season on Sept. 13 at home against Seattle. It is possible players would consider not playing the opener or another game.

The team already is adjusting to dramatic changes. Atlanta will have no fans for at least its first two home games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Blank said it is “a distinct possibility” that some fans will be allowed in Mercedes-Benz Stadium as early as October. He said he “can’t bet on it” because the pandemic is difficult to predict.

On Friday, Blank attended a scrimmage at the stadium, complete with fake crowd noise.

“I know they look around and there’s nobody here,” Blank said of the players, “but I do think it’s a step in the right direction. If we are on our best behavior, God willing we may have fans in this building sooner than later.”

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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