Nov 28, 2014 6:11 PM
Column: We're all the better for Watson's words
The Associated Press
We need more athletes like Benjamin Watson.
Not for anything he's done on the field, though his NFL career has stretched to more than a decade.
This is about what Watson did after he had took off the helmet and pads, putting words to his jumbled emotions in the wake of a grand jury deciding not to indict a police officer for the shooting death of African-American teenager Michael Brown.
The result was a thoughtful, poignant essay he posted to his official Facebook page. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who cares about an issue that sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri and protests around the country.
Watson, who is black, was clearly touched like many others by the senseless death of another young person of color.
But the New Orleans Saints tight end was much more nuanced and balanced than most of us, including plenty of athletes who took to social media to lash out in anger.
Watson appealed to those from both sides of the political divide. He reminded us that few issues are as simple as black and white, that almost everything is tinged with a bit of gray. He again demonstrated the hefty sway held by those who play our professional sports, if they're willing to take as much time studying up on the issues of the day as they do their playbooks.
Watson wrote of being "angry" at the racial injustices in this country, "fearful" that he could be singled out because of the color of his skin, "sad" that an 18-year-old needlessly lost his life. He also wrote of being "embarrassed" by the looting in Ferguson and how some will use that to justify the treatment of African-Americans, "sympathetic" toward white police officer Darren Wilson if he was only doing his job, "confused" by those who would disobey an officer's legitimate commands but equally perplexed by abuses of police power.
As of Friday, nearly 757,000 readers had clicked the "Like" button on Watson's posting. More than 422,000 had shared the essay with their own Facebook friends.
Millions, to be sure, have been exposed to Watson's words.
"Very surprised, since I don't have a huge footprint on social media," he told The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. "I do a little from time to time like everybody does, but I don't have near the following as some people do. I think it just struck a chord and I think it just went from there. Everyone could just really relate."
Charles Barkley famously declared as part of a marketing campaign, of course that he wasn't a role model. Rightly, he knew that parents and teachers and other mentors will always be on the front lines of steering young people toward the right path in their lives.
But, over the years, there have been plenty of athletes who had something valuable to say, even if it came at great personal and financial cost. Muhammad Ali standing up for his religious convictions during the Vietnam War. Billie Jean King pushing for equality of the sexes. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on an Olympic podium, refusing to just quietly accept being second-class citizens in their own country.
Now it's Watson, putting at least a little salve on the nation's wound.
Maybe he was able to touch someone who had no doubt this was a proper use of deadly force by an officer who felt his life was threatened, who didn't feel a lick of sympathy toward Brown or his family.
"I'M OFFENDED," Watson wrote, "because of the insulting comments I've seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others."
Maybe he was able to touch someone who felt angry enough to riot over an unarmed black teenager being gunned down in the middle of his own neighborhood, who felt that violence was the only way to deal with another racially charged death.
"I'M INTROSPECTIVE," Watson continued, "because sometimes I want to take 'our' side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it's us against them. Sometimes I'm just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that's not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That's not right."
Watson and the Saints were playing Monday night against Baltimore when the grand jury's decision not to bring charges was announced. He told the Times-Picayune that he discussed it with his wife after the game and decided to write down his thoughts rather than just give a knee-jerk reaction. In between spurts of writing, he took a nap, attended a teammate's charity event and ran some errands.
Finally, it was done.
"I think it shows that a lot of people have a lot of different feelings and don't quite know how to express them," Watson told the newspaper. "It's important that you are able to see the other side of things, even if you don't agree with them."
Be sure to read it, if you haven't already.
You'll be the better for it.
Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963