This was back in November, in a locker room at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. This was a few days before the New England Patriots beat the Eagles, 17-10, at Lincoln Financial Field. This was a few days after the NFL had begun arranging a formal workout for Colin Kaepernick, ostensibly to allow the exiled quarterback to show that he was ready to return to the league — and ostensibly to show that the league was ready to have him return. This was an ideal time to speak to Benjamin Watson, one of the Patriots’ tight ends.
Watson was in his 15th NFL season and his second stint with the Patriots, and he rightfully had earned a reputation as one of the league’s most insightful thinkers. He had never been content — in a phrase that has become so trite so quickly — to stick to sports. In 2014, he had written a Facebook post, in the aftermath of the protests and rioting in Ferguson, that had gone viral. In 2015, he had published a book: Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race — and Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us. He had always been open to discussing these and other sociopolitical events and issues.
So even then, long before a Minneapolis cop choked the life out of George Floyd and athletes around the country rose up and Drew Brees offered and apologized for his views on Kaepernick and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell groveled before the league’s black players and admitted he and the NFL’s owners had not listened to their concerns, it was appropriate to ask Watson: What was it about Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to take a knee during the national anthem that had made it such a flashpoint?
“I think it was a combination of things,” said Watson, who in March announced his retirement from football. “It was during the national anthem. It was the reason he stated, which, I believe, was to bring awareness to oppression and police brutality. Those are two things in this country that are very real and are two things that a lot of people have different opinions about how real they actually are. And so it wasn’t only that he chose to take a knee. It was the subject matter.”
There were other relevant and influential factors, too. There was President Donald Trump — a political, racial, emotional, and rhetorical pyromaniac — who not only is incapable of speaking intelligently or empathetically about so complex and sensitive a subject but who was also happy to use Kaepernick’s protest as a flamethrower in the culture war. There was Kaepernick himself, who undercut the credibility and moral decency of his peaceful stand against police brutality by proclaiming that he didn’t bother to vote and by suggesting, on those rare occasions he did speak publicly, that he was more interested in destroying the system than he was in repairing and reforming it. And there were the American media and public, who too often present and consume news through a binary, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us prism — a destructive tendency that only fortifies our separative walls and silos.
That final point is vital, and Watson exemplifies a reality that can be easily overlooked amid this groundswell: It is marvelous that athletes are speaking their minds. It is their right, and for some, it is a responsibility and obligation. But not all of them are going to think the way you do or the way you think they should, and that cognitive dissonance, that intellectual discomfort, cuts at multiple angles.
Watson is an activist, all right, and his activism includes extensive work in the anti-abortion movement. He delivered a speech at the 2017 March for Life. He is producing and financing a documentary about abortion. He has taken a strong stand on a subject as fraught and explosive as any in this country, including the matters that have animated these recent protests.
“To me, it’s a justice issue,” Watson said. “It’s about giving people their just due: providing protection for those who deserve protection and providing punishment for those who deserve punishment. And when it comes to providing justice for the unborn, the pre-born, they’re vulnerable. They deserve to be protected. They deserve to have those who are able stand for them because they don’t have a voice.
“That’s what I would call justice. When it comes to abortion or sex trafficking or issues of police brutality, those are on a long spectrum of justice issues for me. As a Christian, yes, I live my faith by standing for the unborn, but it’s a bunch of other things as well that fit into that same pot for me.”
If you’re surprised or taken aback by Watson’s stance, ask yourself why. Is it because he considers abortion a justice issue, just as he does the causes for which he, Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins, and other athletes have fought? Is it because you have your own preconceptions and assumptions about how a black athlete — or any athlete, or any human being — is supposed to think?
The point of discussion and debate should be to acknowledge and challenge, to understand and persuade, not to reaffirm one’s own self-righteousness. It’s a difficult, messy process. But it’s necessary, and it can be carried out only in good faith, with genuine tolerance, without hair-trigger outrage, and without defaulting to the blind belief that anyone who would disagree with your position must have all the smarts and noble intentions of a sack of rats.
There’s no more important a time to remember those truths than this one, especially as so many athletes grow more comfortable about expressing their opinions on the multiplying platforms available to them. They are men. They are women. They are imperfect. They are individuals. They are not a monolith.
“The great thing about a locker room, honestly, is a lot of us come from a lot of different backgrounds socially, economically,” Watson said. “We have a common goal, and we know each other personally, so we respect each other. You’d be surprised the things we talk about. We talk about all the things you’re not supposed to talk about: religion, politics, abortion. We talk about all those things, but we have a respect for each other because we know each other’s heart. We can agree to disagree and still respect each other.
“We can have civil discourse. That’s what’s lacking sometimes on the outside, is that civil discourse.”