Sports Nut

“People Told Me to Shut Up and Play Football”

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins on why athletes are speaking out about social justice.

Andrew Hawkins
Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns walks onto the field prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 14, 2014, in Cleveland.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

After the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James opened the ESPY Awards with a speech that had nothing to do with basketball. “The system is broken,” Anthony said. “The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to great change is at an all-time high.”

The NBA’s best-known players echoed what Andrew Hawkins has been saying since 2014. Two years ago, the Cleveland Browns wide receiver wore a T-shirt on the field that said “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III.” Back then, Hawkins explained that he felt compelled to support Rice and his family, saying, “If I was to run away from what I felt in my soul was the right thing to do, that would make me a coward and I couldn’t live with that.”

On this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca spoke with Hawkins about what’s changed since he first spoke out about his beliefs, the importance of feeling uncomfortable, and whether NFL locker rooms are as conservative as they seem. A transcript of that interview is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

Josh Levin: What are you feeling right now? What do you want to say?

Andrew Hawkins: We’re just at a point in regard to race relations, we’re at a tipping point in America. It’s a crucial time. It’s sad, honestly, I think it’s a place that deep down no one wants to be in. But it’s something that needs to be addressed, it’s something that needs to be fixed, and hopefully we can figure it out and take steps toward doing that.

Levin: How did you feel when you heard that speech at the ESPYs? You have the biggest stars in all of sports now saying things you were saying a couple years ago.

Hawkins: I love it. I think it’s important. I think it’s something bigger than sports. These athletes are some of the only people of color that are given this platform that can really truly raise awareness. Trust me, when I went thought it, people told me to shut up and play football. But what they don’t realize is, me not having to have the conversations that my parents had with me with my son, or my son having to have that conversation with his son, is more important to me than what anybody’s public perception of me is when I give my opinion. I think it’s crucial for athletes to do so—I did it two years ago.

I think everybody’s boiling point is different. Everybody heats up to their boiling point at different paces. Everyone gets to 212 degrees at different paces. Some have a hotter fire, some it’s slow burn. But still I believe that eventually everybody is going to get to that point and I think that’s what you’re seeing now, is a lot of athletes who maybe weren’t at that point two years ago or three years ago or one year ago, they’re starting to heat towards that. I don’t think it’s so much about us in this time right now, because we’re used to it, we’ve dealt with it, we’ve been taught it.

But people have children, and you really look at your legacy and what you stand for—you don’t want your children to deal with the same things you dealt with, just like no parent wants their children to grow up in the same economic environment that they grew up in. They want it to be better. They want everything to be better for their children. I think athletes are starting to see that and that’s why they’re starting to speak out.

Stefan Fatsis: Leagues like the NFL historically haven’t always been sympathetic to players who take strong political stances. You admitted a couple years ago when you wore the Tamir Rice T-shirt that you thought about it in advance, you were a little scared about the potential consequences. Your road to the NFL was not easy—you wrote about it in the Players’ Tribune. What changed from before you wore that T-shirt to now?

Hawkins: I honestly think there’s people who just perceive me different. I was always the underdog that everyone identified with, and I still think I’m that way. But if you’re on the other side of the fence on a certain issue, your opinion is going to change. And that was the part I was scared of, because I built my reputation on being this guy who’s all about football—and I am, and I’m still the same guy, that doesn’t change.

But this is important, it’s something bigger than me. Whatever backlash I was going to get, whatever consequence there was for stating my opinion, I was OK with. Because I look at my son’s eyes, I look at the eyes of my daughter, and I would be a bad dad if my No. 1 goal wasn’t always to put them in the best situation as possible. And shame on me, for me to have this platform and me to have this opportunity to stand up for something that I thought was unjust, and I passed on it. I can’t do that. And we shouldn’t do that—anybody. And that’s why it was important to me and, again, I don’t think every athlete should come out and speak.

If you’re not passionate about this subject or any subject for that matter then, yeah, shut up and do your thing, because this isn’t something where you just jump in the conversation. Don’t just post things, don’t just come out and say things because it’s the trending thing to do. That’s the wrong thing, and that’s the part that I’m against. Stay out of it if you’re not passionate about it on both sides. If you don’t care about either side, just let it go, don’t just jump on the bandwagon, because that will hurt it more than it helps.

Mike Pesca: Back in 2014, when you put on the T-shirt about Tamir Rice and John Crawford, you had a quote that echoes some of what you’re saying now. You said, “By most accounts I’ve done a solid job of decently building a good name. Before I made the decision to wear the T-shirt, I understood I was putting that reputation in jeopardy.” And you talked about reputation now. I look at it more like you were building up credibility, and maybe now you’re spending it. But the beginning of that quote starts with the words “I’m not an activist,” and I wonder, in the couple years since then, have you changed how you would describe yourself? Are you an activist?

Hawkins: I really don’t believe that. Other people have called me that. And the reason why I say that is because I don’t want it to seem like there is any other agenda except what’s right. I’ve said it before. It’s not about who’s right, it’s about what’s right. It’s that simple. That’s as simple as it is with me. In any situation, it’s not about who’s right, it’s about what’s right. That was my reason for saying that, and I still believe it today.

Levin: On Instagram, Carmelo Anthony posted a photo of the famous Muhammad Ali summit, where Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came out in support of Ali and his conscientious objection to the war in Vietnam. What do you think the connection is between that moment, and black athletes speaking out in the 1960s, and what’s happening today?

Hawkins: You know, I don’t know. I think time will prove that. It’s real popular right now, and it’s getting a lot of attention, and it should be. But what we do moving forward will be more important than making any announcement. How you educate the people around you, what steps you take toward making it better, what sacrifices you make. The equation of life is simple: There’s no gain without pain. For whatever reason, that’s the way this world was designed in every facet. It’s the same thing, there has to be a sacrifice.

If you’re tweeting—and this is what I tell the young athletes who come to me about these situations, because I’ve been through them and I’ve seen both sides of it—if you’re tweeting just because everyone else is tweeting and you’re not uncomfortable, if it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice—like when I wore that T-shirt it was a sacrifice. That’s how it felt. It stressed me out, it bogged me down, because I understood what I was putting at risk. But I was willing to put it at risk in order for someone to gain, in order for the situation to get better. If you don’t do that, even now with the athletes that are speaking out now, if you’re speaking out and you’re comfortable, it’s not the right thing. I’m not saying being comfortable in a bad way, I’m saying you have to put something at risk, something has to be sacrificed.

Now if you’re a person that’s like, “Man, I really don’t want to tweet this or I really don’t want to say it,” and you’re terrified of the backlash and you’re scared, then that is a sacrifice, your tweet is a sacrifice. But it takes sacrifice for us to move forward. So I think time will tell how connected we are to the pioneers of those days, but I don’t believe we’ll go anywhere if the people who really care about it don’t sacrifice, make themselves uncomfortable to get what we think is right.

Fatsis: I think comfortable and uncomfortable is a really interesting way of phrasing it, because sports are a place where everybody gathers to cheer regardless of politics or skin color or background. But there are plenty of people who will cheer you when you make a catch who might be afraid of you walking down the street, or be willing to call someone who looks like you a racial epithet or might stop you if you’re driving down a city street late at night. It seems to me the power that athletes have is to expose that kind of hypocrisy, to make fans uncomfortable. But at the same time there is that risk of alienating fans or teammates or people in the front office who might have different political beliefs. Do you agree with that, and how does that factor into how you think about these issues and how public you can be?

Hawkins: Yeah, I do agree with it to an extent. I’m in a unique situation. I’m 5-foot-6, 175 pounds, so I wouldn’t say people are super afraid of me. I live a normal life. I don’t walk into a room and everybody looks at me and says, “He plays for the Cleveland Browns” or “He’s an NFL superstar”—that doesn’t happen. I go under the radar. Most people don’t realize who I am until I tell them. So it’s not like my life has changed since I’ve been in the NFL or people treat me any different. Now, that’s not the case for everybody. Some people who make it to where we are, life changes for them, they’re treated differently, they’re recognized. They’re 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and people automatically know what they do for a living.

That’s not it with me. I’m very much still connected to the way that I’ve always been perceived. And it happens. I’m not trying to play up anything, it is true. I’ve walked by numerous cars where they’ve locked the doors, I get into an elevator and someone moves out of the way. I’ve been to a place where some people think their children shouldn’t play with my children. And that breaks my heart. My 4-year-old is the most kind-hearted person I’ve ever met in my life. Granted, he’s 4, but he doesn’t know people wouldn’t like him. He doesn’t understand that people would hurt him. When I get in these situations, that’s what breaks my heart. That I see this loving child and I have to have these conversations with him. And there’s a lot of conversations I’m going to have to have with him that are uncomfortable, but this one specifically is one that I think we as a people can change, and need to change, and have to change. And I think that’s just where we are.

Pesca: Andrew, you’re 30, you’ve already banked a few million dollars—I know that guaranteed contracts aren’t real in the NFL, but I know you signed for $13.6 million, you take classes at Columbia, you have kids. All of this adds up to what makes you have the opinions you have and take the stances you have taken. We’re usually told that it’s very hard for an athlete to take a stand, especially if they’re on the fringe or on the bubble and they don’t want to make waves. Do you think the solidity that you have professionally, and perhaps personally, allowed you to take the stance you have, and in any way played into the boldness that you’re showing now?

Hawkins: Yeah, I think so. Honestly, if I was a second-year person I probably wouldn’t be the same. And you’re younger then, so maybe you don’t understand as much. As you get older and as your situation changes, it becomes different. Yes, I have to provide for my family, so if there’s a chance that I’m not going to be able to provide for my family, who is always number one, my kids are always number one, then yeah, maybe it’s not the same. But like I said, everybody’s boiling point is different and you get to that point differently and you’re at peace with it.

There’s a reason why it was Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Paul up there and not four undrafted rookies that just signed with their teams. There’s a reason why it’s like that. And also the platform. Early in my career, I wouldn’t have had the platform. At that time, I had it. I was the leading receiver for an NFL team. And honestly the stars aligned because it was the first game that Johnny Football started, so there were a million reporters in there and a million people covering the game in itself. So the opportunity was just there for me probably more than it would have been had it been a week earlier or a week later.

Levin: LeBron James has really walked the walk in a lot of ways, with the millions and millions of dollars in scholarships that he has provided to kids in Akron, his hometown. At the same time, he was criticized by a lot of people for not speaking out about Tamir Rice earlier. What are your thoughts about what’s fair about judging the biggest stars in the game and what they should be doing?

Hawkins: It’s not fair, honestly. I’m never the kind of person to say what somebody else should do. I’m very much do what you feel to do. I know LeBron, how much he cares and how much he does because he’s not the kind of person to do things and pound his chest about it. That’s just not him. I would never say anything about LeBron because I know how much he means to the community; I know how much he does in the community, which is honestly 100 times more than your average athlete. But because he’s not coming out and tweeting about it and whatever—there’s other ways to do it, and I know he’s doing that. I think people are wrong to do it, to compare him to your way of wanting to do it. If you’re passionate about it, do it and do it your way. It’s not always going to be in front of the cameras after a football game—that was the way I did it. Somebody else has a different way, and that’s LeBron, and I know who he is. And I can’t get into specifics, but it did upset me that people were calling him out for that because they were just wrong.

Fatsis: After you wore the Tamir Rice T-shirt, the head of the Cleveland police union called it “pathetic” and said that you should stick to football, and over the past weekend a different head of the Cleveland police union said that President Obama had blood on his hands because of the Baton Rouge shootings. How are you weighing how much to say and how much to respond and your obligation to your family, to yourself, to your fans, and to the team that you work for?

Hawkins: I don’t think I’m saying anything wrong. And that’s just how I judge it. I believe it’s not so much about the people, that’s just my take. I think making it about people is the wrong way to do it. I think it’s the systems. The systems are broken; the systems are what need to be fixed. I think there’s bad people in every sector of America. There’s bad people since the beginning of time. Literally one of the first four human beings was someone who killed somebody. So that’s never going to change, unfortunately. I think what the issue is, is consequences. It should be the same consequences across the board for the same acts. There should be the same protections across the board, there should be the same opportunities across the board. So it’s just a matter of making the system work for everybody, and if history is an indicator, it just hasn’t been that way and statistics will show that.

Pesca: We’ve seen that the NBA is a little more receptive to social issues and the discussion of them, and the idea that this is going to break up a locker room just doesn’t get repeated as much in the NBA as maybe it did 10 years ago. The NFL, we’re told, they very much believe that anything can sow locker room discord, and it’s a very top down almost militaristic place, and therefore these sort of sentiments won’t play well in an NFL locker room. Does that description sound like the NFL locker rooms you know, or do you think that’s an exaggerated view of how oppressive an NFL locker room is?

Fatsis: Yeah, the idea that this is “a distraction,” that word that’s always thrown around.

Hawkins: It’s not a false narrative that things create a distraction. A lot of things create a distraction, and when you’re on a quest as a football team you want to limit distractions. I’m very much on board with that because I am a football player, and things can be distracting. We have 53 people that we have to make sure aren’t distracted, because we only have 16 turns to do it, so every one matters so much. I just don’t agree with that, honestly. As a football team, I just take the Cleveland Browns—we are a very close football team. We care about each other, and we understand each other, and we have conversations on everything under the sun. Going into this year, this is an issue that everyone is going to deal with going forward. Every locker room, we talk about the same things everybody else talks about. We’re from the same segments of America that everyone else is from. We have the same diversity, the same mix, so we don’t run away from issues amongst each other, because we’re brothers and we have to build that bond because we’re always on the quest to be world champions. That’s always our quest, and if you don’t have that bond, it’s not going to happen. So I guess every locker room is different, but our locker room I think is more than fine.