Watson grows into role as trusted voice of player experience
“Some of the first posts I ever made were talking about race, politics and religion, which are the three things we’re never supposed to talk about,” he tells me. “They’re the things everybody thinks about, but there is a fear of saying the wrong thing or offending someone. There are times when I post something and think, ‘This might not go over too well.’ But you know that you represent other people. You represent your team, your city, your family; so when you say things, you want to be mindful of what you say and how you say it.”
Watson has been very mindful of how he has comported himself. The 36-year-old is one of the most respected players in the NFL, a leader among his peers — serving on the NFLPA’s Executive Committee — and a role model in the league. He was a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2016, which I consider to be among the top honors in sports for its recognition of altruism.
Watson is a leader at home. Married to his wife Kirsten for more than 10 years, they are parents to five young children. And he’s a strong voice on family and relationships, writing two books: “Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us” in 2015, and “The New Dad’s Playbook: Gearing Up for the Biggest Game of Your Life” last May. (“I’m passionate about fatherhood and parenting, and this is a handbook for new dads, or for dads who, like me, mess it up the first time.”)
I have appreciated Watson’s performance on the field for years — from when he first came to the NFL from the University of Georgia and played six seasons for the New England Patriots. A tall target of Tom Brady, he has amazing soft hands and great athleticism, and has had subsequent stints with the Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens. I’ve also admired his work off the field and recognized his innate intelligence — he scored a 48 on his Wonderlic Test, tied for the third-highest score in NFL history. We spent some time together earlier this year, sitting on small stools at the Houston Convention Center, where Watson shared why he feels so passionately about speaking out and how athletes can have a bigger voice in society.
At 6-foot-3, Watson cuts a lean, sharp figure, and he approached me elegantly dressed in a charcoal suit, silver tie and matching handkerchief. After introducing me to Kirsten, the two of us found seats in a quiet corner of the convention hall.
He has the dignified air of someone comfortably speaking out on difficult issues — from race, to politics, to ethics and religion — and said that while his style was greatly influenced by family discussions around the kitchen table, he has also grown more at ease speaking up as he’s become more experienced.
|“It’s not OK to sit back and be quiet if you have something to say and something to contribute.”
He harks back to his youth growing up one of six children in Rock Hill, S.C.
“I was raised in a household where we talked about different things, intelligently. My mother and father didn’t shy away from too much, but it was always from a perspective of respect, even if you disagreed. That was the foundation.”
It was through writing — first on social media — that Watson elevated his voice.
His provocative and personal 650-word essay that he posted in November 2014, after the racial incidents of Ferguson, Mo., went viral and has garnered more than 860,000 likes. That led to his first book a year later that further articulated his views on society.
“I didn’t really get on social media much until the Facebook post. It opened up some doors,” he admits, before adding a disclaimer. “A lot of information is being passed around, and a lot of it isn’t positive. But the avenues are open to get a message out if you’d like to.”
He admits to being surprised by public vitriol.
“I get called a lot of names from people who are reading something I wrote or hear something I’ve said. There is a lot of anger out there.”
But he quickly adds, “It’s not OK to sit back and be quiet if you have something to say and something to contribute. I want to be true to myself and my convictions and what’s important to me. I won’t ever weigh in on a topic that I don’t feel passionate about, or that I don’t have an intelligent opinion about just for the sake of putting out content for likes.”
Watson has spoken frequently about his belief in equality, and while he’s frustrated more progress isn’t made in that regard, he does feel it’s heading in the right direction.
“You talk to older people, like my parents, who lived through segregation and sometimes they just throw their hands up and say, ‘It’s never going to get any better.’ I’ve felt like that before, too. You say, ‘We’ve come as far as we can go and it’s just not going to get any better.’ Then you look at some of the relationships that you have and you say, ‘No, we can get more understanding here.’ There are people from all sides that really care and really want to hear what the other side is saying, and have a genuine heart for harmony, even when there’s conflict in addressing it the correct way. There’s some people that don’t want to get out of their box, and that’s fine. They have their ideas and they’re sticking to those convictions. But in a practical sense, I definitely see improvement.”
What continues to gnaw at Watson is preconceived perceptions and lack of effort toward understanding.
“While on the outside things may look better, the heart lags behind. You and I could be sitting here having a conversation and I could be thinking, ‘Because of the color of his skin, this dude is not as good as me and he is inferior to me.’ All while I’m smiling to your face. The biggest issue is adjusting my heart when it comes to race and ethnicity, and to challenge others to know that we still have work to do.”
Last January, Watson took part in the “Under Our Skin” forum put together by Tyndale House Publishers, who published his book. It featured authors, pastors, broadcasters and sports figures discussing issues of equality. He hopes similar forums will change attitudes.
“If we can get people to say, ‘I can do better’ or ‘How about I invite this person to dinner or over to my house or have this conversation? How about I realize for the first time that I have some racist attitudes and pent-up animosity towards people for something they didn’t even do to me personally?’ Introspection is huge when it comes to this.”
During our time together, Watson continually pushes back on using the word “race” and stressed people keep an open mind.
“Assumptions can hold you in bondage because you think you know someone’s story when you don’t.”
He nudges me, “If I’m going to believe that you and I are fundamentally different because our races are different, the question is asked, which race is better? But I could be genetically closer to you than the black lady that just walked past us. Our genetic code could be closer — and match up better — than someone of the same color because the skin only makes up a small percentage of who you are. Humanity is the same, the race is one and that race is human.”
Watson was a Walter Payton Man of the Year finalist because of the vast work he does in the community. He strongly pushes back on the narratives that today’s athletes don’t give back.
“It really does frustrate me,” he said. “People would be surprised by the percentage of guys active in their local communities or where they grew up, or even supporting causes that don’t even affect them.”
When I asked if he blamed the media for not telling those stories, he shook his head.
“A lot of efforts don’t need to be told. Some guys don’t want people to know. Everyone doesn’t need to know what I’m doing. My point is that just like people in other walks of life, NFL players are very compassionate. They have big hearts. Players do different things. There’s more than one way to effect change.”
Playing for four different teams over his career, he experienced different cultures when it came to working with players on community outreach. “Every team is different. In Baltimore, they are very community oriented. The club donates $10,000 to each player who has a foundation. The club has dedicated staff for community outreach, and they bring different opportunities to you. Maybe you want to do a charity event. If you do, they’ll have a team representative there. Some teams aren’t like that.”
He does have concerns how the public may perceive some of the NFL’s public service efforts.
“There has been an increase in the NFL doing really positive things in the community. While it’s good, I think a lot of it is to offset the negative press.”
He specifically cites his participation in the NFL’s “No More” PSA campaign in 2014 after a number of high-profile domestic violence cases involving players.
“I told my wife, ‘I think the only reason they’re doing this is because a couple of guys, out of 1,600, are abusers.’ She said, ‘No matter what the reason is, the fact that it’s being done means great things can come out of it.’ So no matter how it looks or the timing of it, or whether it was selfish or not, there’s a lot of good that can come from the NFL supporting those types of efforts.”
|Watson spends time with local communities, here in New Orleans as a member of the Saints.
Watson established his “One More” foundation dedicated to community giving in 2008 “We wanted to have a legacy for our children, where we could have events and mission trips and have something that was our own.” But he cautions young players that establishing a foundation isn’t the only vehicle to give back.
“There are other ways to give back and be charitable without having the headaches of your own foundation, without having to file the taxes and having the minutes of the board meetings and dealing with the board. You can link up with your club, they have their arms in the community. Ask them to help you. I tell the young players to meet with the team’s staff that does charitable giving and outreach. Have them guide you. If you then want to do a foundation, make sure you’re checking with your tax people and have the right people. You need checks and balances, and you need a team of people watching your back. Get with people who know what they’re doing.”
He said it can be overwhelming for a player to oversee. “How many 23-year-olds do you know that are running a company?”
Watson knows the end of his career is near. He’s 36 and coming off a torn Achilles last year where he missed the entire season. But he’s healthy and has been active in Ravens camp this month. Proof of how highly he is regarded by his peers: It was reported that Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome sought Watson’s specific feedback while the team was considering signing Colin Kaepernick.
He surely will use his voice — writing, speaking and public service — when his days playing the game are over.
“I don’t know what the next step is, or what God has planned for me, but I’m excited to find out,” he said.
But he will continue to fight for ways to shed light on the power of today’s athletes to do social good and be articulate, respectful voices for change.
“The sports industry needs to do a better job of recognizing players as being more than athletes. What I mean by that is creating opportunities and content and bringing out stories of what these guys are really and truly passionate about. You’d be surprised how many guys care about things outside of the game. We need to bring that out and allow them to speak intelligently about those things. We all have a voice.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org