On Sunday, Dec. 14, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins came out of the tunnel to face the Cincinnati Bengals. He didn't shout. He didn't yell. He didn't even open his mouth—but everyone in FirstEnergy Stadium, and millions around the nation, heard his statement.
He wore a shirt over his jersey that read "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III" on the front, and "The Real Battle for Ohio" on the back.
The shirt referred to a 12-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man shot and killed by Cleveland and Beavercreek police, respectively. Rice, the child, was holding an airsoft gun; Crawford held an air rifle he'd picked up off the shelves at the Walmart he was patronizing. Both were black.
Protesters nationwide have held up cases like Rice's and Crawford's as evidence of a more suspicious, more confrontational, more deadly approach police take to serving black citizens. How Cleveland police treated Crawford's girlfriend Tasha Thomas after the shooting, per The Guardian's Jon Swaine, reinforces that idea. So does a USA Today study of national arrest rates broken down by ethnicity.
"It's pretty pathetic," Jeff Follmer, Cleveland Police Patrolman's Association president, said in a statement to NewsNet 5, "when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland police protect and serve the browns stadium [sic] and the browns [sic] organization owes us an apology."
In that statement is everything Hawkins, and many thousands of protesters across the country, are speaking out against.
Protesters say, "Black lives matter," and authorities like Follmer tell them they should know their place. When the head of the local police union, in between an insult and a demand for an apology, reminds a black man that police keep him safe at work, it's not just a casual reminder. It's a reinforcement of the power Hawkins is challenging: that police have license to use force (or deny aid) as they see fit.
By demanding the Browns organization apologize to the police for Hawkins' statement—just as the St. Louis Police Officer's Association demanded an apology for the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture several St. Louis Rams performed—the CPPA is demanding the Browns silence Hawkins by asserting their power and privilege over him.
Let's not forget: The wealthy ownership and management of the NFL is overwhelmingly white, and its labor largely black. Though the seething cauldron of fans in the stands is a metropolitan melting pot united by the colors of its replica jerseys, above the fans all of their bosses' bosses loom, hobnobbing and networking in luxury behind glass walls.
When Hawkins pulled that shirt over his jersey, he wasn't just challenging a justice system that disproportionately arrests and jails people that look like him, but also the systems of wealth and power that keep him employed.
To the Browns' great credit, they stood behind their employee.
"We have great respect for the Cleveland Police Department," the Browns' statement to NewsNet 5 read, "and the work that they do to protect and serve our city. We also respect our players' rights to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner."
Hawkins' protest was anything but pathetic. In fact, it couldn't have been more responsible.
"I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have," Hawkins told Cleveland media, per a transcript compiled by ESPN.com's Tony Grossi. "Justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology."
Hawkins' full statement deserves to be heard and remembered for a long, long time. It's a beautiful expression of what it means to be American. It's a heartfelt wish for his son to grow up in the best possible America—where he knows his son will be given the same treatment, and have the same access to justice, my own (white) son will.
"Being a police officer takes bravery," Hawkins said. "I understand that they’re put in difficult positions and have to make those snap decisions. As a football player, I know a little bit about snap decisions, obviously on an extremely lesser and non-comparative scale, because when a police officer makes a snap decision, it’s literally a matter of life and death."
Sports fans love, adore and cherish our sporting icons. On the field, they're role models, heroes, legends. We prefer them that way. We don't really like them to talk. We deny them their humanity. As Follmer suggested, we like them to stick to the field.
But doesn't Hawkins' voice deserve to be heard? Is America not richer for giving him a chance to speak? He took a platform of live HD video streamed to millions around the globe, and hot mics recording everything he said, and made two powerful contributions to the national discourse on behalf of millions less privileged.
We do great disservice to athletes, and ourselves, when we deny them humanity. We're just as guilty when we do the same to "the thin blue line."
As Hawkins said, police officers face life-or-death danger every day. They make split-second decisions with irrevocable consequences. When we pretend their bravery, intelligence and training make them infallible, we set them up to fail.
We demand superhuman performance and absolute silence from our finest (even when we honor them by using phrases like "our finest"). But often we try to bluff, bluster or smooth-talk our way out of encounters with them, as Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand did during his 2010 DUI arrest.
It's no wonder some members of law enforcement harbor surprising mistrust of, even contempt for, the public they serve.
Football isn't life and death, but it matters.
It's OK to admit it. Sports are entertainment, yes, and escapism, but we need those things. When our NFL team goes out and wins, we win a little bit, too. For millions of Americans, that's the only time during these holidays they'll cheer.
In a fractured American job market, chronically un- and underemployed football fans are constantly scrambling to pile up enough part-time and seasonal work to make ends meet. Our nights and weekends have never been so spoken for; we've never worked so hard for so little.
Our entertainment budgets have shrunk. We do much less of our shopping in communal malls. Social organizations and labor unions are waning in membership and influence. Our nation's rich tapestry of race, ethnicity, language and creed has never been richer, but the roles of tradition and religion in public life have become smaller and more politicized.
Like nothing else we have left, sports unite our splintered society.
Sports are nearly the only TV programming the whole nation still watches live. Games are nearly the only recession-proof form of live entertainment. Pride in our teams is just about the only form of civic pride that unites all ages, races, classes and genders.
Time and again, we vote to collectively donate hundreds of millions to billionaires so they can build bigger, better temples for our sports teams. Even as our schools cry out for funding, our bridges crumble and our police officers do more in fewer hours in return for slashed benefits and vanishing pensions, we invest in sports.
As the NFL season builds to a thrilling finish, we've reached the time of year when all but the least fortunate of us take a little time to give and receive, to reflect and be thankful. Let's celebrate the bravery and service of those who protect our rights, as well those who stand up for them.
Let's cheer our athletes, not just when they make an impact on the scoreboard, but when they make an impact on our lives.
Ty Schalter is a National NFL Lead Writer for Bleacher Report, and member of the Pro Football Writers of America.