Shortly after a grand jury failed to indict the Ferguson, Mo., police officer charged in the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, then-New Orleans Saints player Benjamin Watson penned a Facebook post to process his wide-ranging feelings. That post went viral, and Watson later wrote a book hoping to spark meaningful discussions about race in the United States.
With unrest and racial justice protests spreading anew after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, Watson is continuing to speak up. The recently retired tight end said he has run the gamut of emotions once again throughout the past month, but he’s hopeful that these demonstrations will finally cause long-needed conversations about race and systemic change.
“The No. 1 message I want white America to see and hear is, we need you to listen in a way you haven’t listened before,” Watson said on Glenn Clark Radio June 19. “And not only listen, but we need you to be empathetic, and we need you to enter your own journey of discovery if you really do care about what you’re seeing. And I need you to be willing to be uncomfortable, possibly, and I need you to be willing to be challenged, possibly.”
The current protests have reignited a long-simmering discussion about America’s racist history. After the unrest in Ferguson and subsequent police killings of unarmed Black Americans, more athletes began to speak out, with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the national anthem garnering the most attention. During Watson’s two-year tenure with the Baltimore Ravens in 2016 and 2017, those demonstrations flared up time and time again.
Most notably, after President Donald Trump called for protesting players to be fired in a September 2017 rally, the blowback was rather swift. Watson said he and his teammates — who were in London at the time preparing to play the Jacksonville Jaguars — were initially shocked by the statement and did not know how to immediately react. There were tears and conversations, and the following day, dozens of players from both teams knelt in unity during the anthem. Similar actions followed league-wide.
The league had been apprehensive about the demonstrations, though, and the following offseason, team owners and commissioner Roger Goodell passed a policy requiring players to either stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room instead of publicly protesting. But after widespread backlash, that policy was reversed and never implemented.
With the newest wave of protests now in the spotlight, the league and the commissioner has backed away from that original stance. Goodell apologized and admitted fault for not listening to players’ concerns and said he welcomes peaceful demonstrations. While the message came later than he would have liked, Watson is glad Goodell finally came around.
“I do know that the commissioner does care, at least from speaking with him on several occasions, about these issues. He cares about allowing players to have civic voices,” the 16-year pro said. “Would I have appreciated his statement two or three years ago? Of course I would have. But that doesn’t mean that right now it’s necessarily a bad thing, and I think that we take it and build upon it.”
With a lack of live sports due to the coronavirus pandemic, many of these athletes have been able to focus on creating change off the field, attending protests and donating to social justice causes. But some see a return of sports as overshadowing these important causes, a topic first brought up by Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving in a June 12 call with other players.
The response was divisive, with some saying sports provides a platform for these issues and could serve as a needed distraction from the world’s troubles. But others, including the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, have taken up Irving’s mantle and are forgoing playing in 2020, arguing that sports would pull public attention away from more pressing issues.
Watson said he understands both sides of the debate but applauds those willing to take a stand.
“There’s something to that [argument], but sports is two-sided,” Watson said. “Most importantly, what you see there from these athletes is a responsibility they feel to not miss the moment and to not allow themselves to be a distraction to what’s important for life and for country. And I think that’s very admirable.”
All that has unfolded over the last month has allowed Watson time to reflect and converse with his friends, family and former teammates, and the 39-year-old said he’s had constructive discussions with most of those he has spoken with. Ultimately, Watson is hopeful that Americans will come out of this turbulent period more informed, more united and ready to take action.
“Engage in those conversations, but also do a little bit of your own studying and research because what we’re seeing right now is simply the tip of an iceberg that is very deeply rooted in the very fabric of America,” Watson said. “This can be a tremendous time of growth for America as a whole.”
For more from Watson, listen to the full interview here:
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