Like millions of others watching images of the mob violence unfold at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in the name of President Trump, Ben Watson was flabbergasted.
“I was angry, sad,” the former NFL tight end told USA TODAY Sports. “It was shocking to see. The reason it was shocking was not because people were protesting or rioting, because we’ve seen that throughout our country’s history. To be blunt, that’s what we celebrate every 4th of July.
"But it was images of people pushing through police barricades and attacking the Capitol … a symbol of America. It was different from seeing people protest down the street or burn a business, or anything like that. They were breaking into a somewhat sacred place. That’s what was shocking to me.
“And then you have the comparisons to what we’ve seen with people who were protesting Black men (and women) being shot and killed. You just see such a stark difference there. That’s what was tough for a lot of people and tough for me. I’ll also say this: I wasn’t surprised that it came to that because of the words of the President, and not even specifically what he said about marching on the Capitol.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has not issued a statement regarding the Capitol riots. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
"The good that he has done in some areas has been overshadowed by the way he has talked about people — from NFL players being SOBs to talking about s-hole countries, all those sorts of things. People need to be held accountable for how they talk, because their followers inevitably embrace and act out the things that they say. I wasn’t surprised that it’s come to this because of all of that that’s been building.”
Watson's words are powerful, but they are also in some ways unique, because unfortunately, much of the NFL has been silent.
While many NBA players and coaches have expressed disgust with the insurrection this week — including powerful messages from LeBron James and Gregg Popovich — NFL voices have paled in comparison when it comes to a public forum.
Ravens receiver Dez Bryant and 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman were two of a very limited pool of NFL players who shared views on Twitter on Wednesday — both players suspected that if the mob at the Capitol had consisted of Black protesters, they would have been met with intense force and deadly consequences. Also, Seahawks tackle Duane Brown addressed the situation during a Zoom call.
Tweeted Bryant: “I’m just wondering where the tasers and tear gas (was) like they do Black people when they are peacefully protesting? Just a thought not that I promote violence and chaos but Black people could never come out of that alive…I’m hoping real changes can happen for the future of this country cause it’s an ugly mess right now.”
Sherman: "There are certain things my brain could never imagine…and one of them is Black ppl storming a government building and taking things without deadly consequences. But that’s just my brain."
(Five people lost lives stemming from the Capitol mayhem, including a woman shot by police, a Capitol police officer and three people who succumbed after medical emergencies.)
It’s striking that for all of the statements, video messages and initiatives coming from the league office and NFL teams in the months following George Floyd’s death, for its social-justice commitment, there wasn’t a single statement from the league or any of its teams that as much as condemned the actions of the hooligans at the Capitol.
It’s been crickets, even as the NFL will use its stage during the playoffs for its “Inspire Change” campaign for social justice. Goal posts will be wrapped with messages; slogans denouncing racism painted into the end zone. More of the powerful “Say Their Names” video vignettes featuring victims killed in incidents with racial overtones will be unveiled on the NFL website.
It’s merely a coincidence that the launch of the continued “Inspire Change” campaign comes on the heels of what happened at the Capitol. The league has planned for weeks to roll out the campaign and dedicate the stage to social justice causes.
Then again, given the climate of polarization in this country and repeated episodes that underscore vast differences in how people of color are treated by law enforcement and the judicial system, the NFL’s “Inspire” rollout might seem coincidental whenever it occurred.
That’s why Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL needed to at least make some sort of statement on the record. Keep in mind that several team owners supported Trump’s campaigns or inaugural festivities following his election, but pledged in recent months to better support and listen to players, more than 70% of whom are African American.
But we’ve seen the history. A league that values public trust caved in failing to support Colin Kaepernick’s protests — and the quarterback has effectively been blackballed after putting a spotlight on police killings of unarmed African Americans and other social injustices. The league also values revenue, sponsorship dollars and mass appeal, factors that can run counter to trust. When Goodell put out a video in June responding to a powerful video featuring several high-profile players following Floyd’s death, his message could have (should have) been expressed years earlier.
“I’m glad the league has started to listen to players,” said Watson, who played for the Patriots, Saints and Ravens. “I wish it was earlier. When you weigh that against the backdrop of what their primary objective is, they had to get involved at a time when it was socially acceptable to do so. Which always seems to be too late.
“I think great good is coming from what Roger Goodell posted with his video, what different club owners have done, getting involved with players on things that are important, the messaging. They’re still getting pushback. It’s not that everyone is on board. But I think they realize that you can never be wrong in supporting the men that you say and claim to love and care for.”
I reached out to Watson, 40, who retired in 2020 after 16 NFL seasons, knowing how passionate he has been delving into social issues. In 2014, a 650-word essay that Watson posted on Facebook went viral as he shared his feelings about the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited by the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager. It led to his book, published in 2016: Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race.
He is as qualified as anyone to gauge how the events this week are playing in the locker rooms — even as they prepare for the high-stakes, wild-card playoffs.
“There’s no doubt, it’s consuming conversation,” Watson said, mindful of how issues such as protests during the national anthem ignited discussions and actions within teams. “Throughout my 16 years in the league, whenever there was something like Ferguson, those issues, guys talk about those things. They affect us all in different ways. The thing I love about locker rooms is that we were able to have these conversations and have some sort of understanding, even when coming from different political viewpoints, because they have a relationship with each other.
“We can easily get on Twitter — and I’m guilty of this, too — and shoot two, three sentences back and forth. But in a locker room, you are able to have a more complex dialogue about an issue that is literally tearing the country apart right now. So, I know guys are talking about it.”
Players, and others in the league, just aren't publicly talking about it enough.
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