There is a core of players on the Seattle Seahawks who have been uniquely outspoken in recent years. They are the leading exemplars of the “new political athlete,” unafraid to speak out on hot-button issues related to race, labor, and the elections. This is the team of cornerback Richard Sherman, who has challenged media stereotyping of black athletes and the exploitation of the NCAA. This is the team of defensive end Michael Bennett, who sported his Bernie Sanders hat to practice and publicly—as well as respectfully—argued with Sherman in dueling press conferences about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is the team of receiver Doug Baldwin, who has been pushing for players to speak up about racial inequity.
One can imagine this small crew of Seahawks seeing the attention garnered by Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests against police violence, and immediately trying to amplify his message. Instead, Seahawks management has steered this desire by the team to do something into safe avenues that have little in common with Kaepernick’s call for justice.
The hijacking of the Seahawks’ desire to act started when Doug Baldwin spoke early last week about plans for a team-wide demonstration during the anthem. There was one problem. Players with ties “close to the military,” as the NFL Network put it, didn’t want any part of it. At that point, the team really should have decided that players who wanted to kneel would kneel and left it at that. Instead, it wound up with a team-building exercise where players linked arms with their coaches to showcase ”team unity,” “honoring the country,” and “building a bridge”—or, as Damon Young acidly wrote in GQ:
They…linked arms. Because unity and freedom and ketchup or something.
Basically, they pulled a fast one on us. And by “pulled a fast one on us” I mean “pulled some #AllLivesMatter placards out of their collective asses, and passed them out to the crowd.”
Then, on Monday, the corporate rollout began. An article was posted on the team website called “Seahawks Hope To Build A Bridge With Follow Through.” This is the team’s mission statement about how it is going to effect change.
The piece starts by hitting all the right notes. It immediately connects the team-sanctioned plan with Kaepernick, writing, “The Seahawks, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players and teams around the league have gotten people’s attention with pregame demonstrations, now their goal is to follow through with action and meaningful conversation.” It mentions that Richard Sherman spoke to legendary sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards about the need to “do something.”
Doug Baldwin also quotes Harry Edwards. “He said the difference between a mob and a movement is a follow through.”
This all sounds great, except… follow through to what? A bridge to what? What “actions and meaningful conversations” are being proposed? According to the team wesite, the goal is to “bring together local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve,” and “meet with Seattle mayor Ed Murray, as well as police chiefs from departments around the state.”
Michael Bennett is quoted as saying:
“For us, we want to be able to build that bridge. The things that we already do in the community—it’s not like we just started doing this, a lot of us have foundations, a lot of us are working in the community—but what we want to do is work well with the people all around.”
Here is where we get the steering of Kaepernick’s call for justice into a call for service, a call for foundation work, and a call to dialogue with the police. It’s a call to do the same kind of camera-friendly community engagement that athletes have been doing since Babe Ruth was handing baseballs to sick kids in the hospital.
The part of the article that “gives the game away” takes place when it ends with aggressively image-conscious quarterback Russell Wilson saying:
“If we can change the heart of one person, and let that person change somebody else’s heart and soul and viewpoint, and understand to respect, and learn more about other people and build that bridge like we talked about, that’s what it takes to help the world.”
This is the same Russell Wilson who was one of the first people to throw Kaepernick under the bus, and link his stance to disrespecting the military, even though Kaepernick had been explicit in saying otherwise. Back in August, Wilson said:
“I understand what he’s doing. For me, I love the flag. I love the National Anthem because it’s an emotional time for me because I’m so grateful I get to play on the football field. And every time I get to put my hand on my heart, it’s truly in honor of the military. For me, I think about my family members who have served.”
This opened the door for the entire “Colin Kaepernick hates the troops” narrative. Any bridge built by Russell Wilson is not going to lead to a place that talks about why the police officer who killed Eric Garner is back to work with a raise, or why our justice system makes getting accountability for a police killing next to impossible.
Yet what’s mentioned in this mission statement is less important than what isn’t mentioned. Reading it, you would never know that there are activist organizations in Seattle that work against police brutality every day and who have tried to dialogue with police, only to be stymied time and again. These groups and their years of experience have somehow been magically removed from this conversation. Groups that could certainly use the Seahawks’ money and cultural cachet, like the NAACP, the Black Student Unions, and the nascent Black Lives Matter chapters, have been rendered invisible so the team can construct its own reality, in which dialogue with police has never been tried and this team is uniquely positioned to make it work.
And that takes us to the other element that is glaringly missing from this team mission statement: any discussion or awareness about the reality of the Seattle Police Department. To treat police like they are just misunderstood is wrong. To think that communication will make it better is dangerously naive. This department is under a federal consent decree from the Department of Justice because the DOJ found that one in four arrests violated the constitutional rights of those in custody. They are also investigating Seattle’s “excessive use of disproportionate force on people of color.” The city simmers over the killing of a young man named Che Taylor, who police said was reaching for a gun, although witnesses said otherwise. Then there was John T. Williams, a wood-carver shot dead in the street by police.
As teacher Jesse Hagopian, who just won a brutality settlement against the police after being pepper-sprayed in the face on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, said to me, “The cops have been through countless community conversations on this, and they still pepper-sprayed me in the face and shot Che Taylor…. My advice to the Seahawks I love is not to let the police spray them in the face—either with false promises or pepper spray.”
Fighting police violence is not a team-building exercise and it is not a corporate-branding ritual. It is something that individuals of conscience practice, ideally in concert with other activists, at great personal risk. That is what has made Colin Kaepernick’s stance so electric. He’s calling for justice, not peace. He is risking and earning the hatred of the worst sports announcers and Internet bigots across the country. He is also inspiring people to take a stand and force management to either offer lukewarm praise, or get out of the way. The last thing needed is the “good athlete/bad athlete” template that you know is coming so the media can say, “Look at the Seahawks! They do it the right way! Why can’t Kaepernick be more like them?”
If the Seahawks think that community service in meetings with police officers is the way to go, they should be honest about the fact that this is not a continuation of what Colin Kaepernick is trying to do but a break from it. Team unity forged on corporate ground will not last, because the world isn’t stopping.
Doug Baldwin’s Twitter feed is instructive. Yesterday, Baldwin, after weeks of tweeting about police brutality, handed out an award to a Seattle police officer for community building. Several hours later he was back on Twitter, tweeting out the story that a Los Angeles County sheriff just killed an unarmed man who happened to be white. Baldwin wrote, “Changes have to and WILL be made!” Someone get this man a movement against police violence, because right now he is trapped in a team-branded United Way commercial.
Until 2016, the Seahawks was the team of iconic running back Marshawn Lynch, who in addition to being outspoken was also never shy about calling out the bullshit in his own organization. I know this is just a theory, but it feels like the absence of Lynch has created a Voltron of athletes who want to come together and say something about these killings, but just can’t organize independently of their team. They are Voltron without the heart.