There’s an image from the 2017 season, stamped into my mind. Early autumn. No clouds. Three new faces, each from their own world, stoically perched, unified in the face of a national reckoning.
Let’s set the stage:
Two players; both navigating their first year in New York. They look rejuvenated, despite a tough 0-2 start to their tenure. On the left, Quarterback Josh McCown, 38, the well-traveled journeyman. On the right, Safety Jamal Adams, 21, the high-pedigree rookie. These two would serve as the twin pillars of the team, not only as they lead their men to a decisive victory in the following hours, but as they navigated the rocky season in the months to come.
But, to me, the story lies with the man in the middle, Christopher Johnson, the newly named CEO & Chairman of the Jets, filling in for his older brother, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson.
As the image is snapped, Johnson stands between the two players, in only his third week on the job, the culture war had landed on his doorstep. On one side of the fight, his brother’s boss, his President; on the other, his players and fans, diverse in ideology, both who just want to win.
Still, he stands with a tall confidence, well aware of the place he was carving out for himself in the national dialogue.
In the background: music. A story of cloth, Broad Stripes and Bright Stars surviving the perilous onslaught of rockets and bombs. The American story of resilience in the face of overwhelming hardship.
The song had become a fire starter in the national political zeitgeist. Just one day earlier, the President chastised players who had been kneeling during the anthem as a protest of racial inequality and the decades long mistreatment of non-white communities at the hands of law enforcement:
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
This quote changed sent shockwaves through the league and the reaction in stadiums across the country was highly anticipated. Some 200+ players and coaches knelt in protest. Some teams stayed in the locker room entirely. There were owners who strongly suggested their players stand and stay quiet, but Johnson, however wanted to let his team decide, themselves.
At a team meeting the night before, they chose to lock arms in unity, and as Johnson filtered into the locker room the next day, he spoke to them each individually, asking them if he could join.
He did. The music played. The image was snapped.
That picture sits in the front of my mind because it marked the real beginning of the Christopher Johnson era.
In the months to come, several players on the Jets would become heavily involved in the League’s commitment to social justice reforms, and Johnson would be a fierce advocate in their corner. In December, the new owner accompanied McCown, LT Kelvin Beachum and LB Demario Davis to the Bronx Public Defenders office to learn more about the criminal justice he and his players were looking to improve via the NFL’s “Let’s Listen Together” initiative.
Now Johnson is taking the lessons taught to him in his first season atop the Jets brass to the Owner’s Meetings in Orlando. His past experiences already guiding the way as he is becoming a fresh and active voice in the NFL establishment.
“I can’t speak to how other people run their teams, but I just think that trying to forcibly get the players to shut up is a fantastically bad idea.
I think that there was an understanding between me and the players that we could … use [our] position to get some great stuff done off the field. And I think we have done some great things off the field, and I have immense respect for the players and their efforts, and I think if some of the other teams approached it like that, there wouldn’t be such a problem in the NFL.”
I’m excited to see what lies ahead for the man quickly becoming a fan favorite. Like all owners, he’ll be judged on his results, but for a franchise that spent the season preaching a change in culture, the example is being set from the top.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com