Benjamin Watson is much more than a man who has caught TD passes from Drew Brees and Tom Brady—the 35-year-old New Orleans tight end is also an eloquent writer. In November 2014, when news broke that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, would not be indicted, Watson took to Facebook to express his thoughts and feelings. He had no idea how much passion he would elicit with his post, which immediately went viral.
Watson started doing press rounds not to talk about his season but about his sentiments in regards to race relations. From that came a book deal. His first venture as an author, Under Our Skin expands on his original Facebook post with examples from his life and references to conversations he’s had with teammates and friends. I chatted with Watson on how he went from athlete to activist and why he’s optimistic for the future of race relations despite the overwhelming number of discouraging stories we’ve seen in the last couple years.
Donnovan Bennett: What compelled you to write your book?
Benjamin Watson: It was a mixture of a few things. Obviously the topic is something we’ve dealt with through our lives. It’s always been in the news and the last few years it feels like it’s been in the news more. After Ferguson and the Facebook post and the response it got, I was approached to write a book. I had started to write down more of my thoughts about the subject and to be honest with myself. When the opportunity came I felt it was a chance to further the conversation.
DB: Why did you make that Facebook post public instead of a group text between like-minded individuals or just a conversation among friends and family members? Why did you go the route of making it public?
BW: That’s a good question. I had never posted to Facebook before. I had a fan page because every athlete is supposed to have a fan page. But I never really posted. I had a team who posted things for me but I did do some writing on the side for the blog on my website. I write about everything there. It just becomes therapy for me. The feelings were so raw based on what I was seeing on television. I just said, let me put down exactly what I’m thinking right now and see what I come up with. It wasn’t really for anyone else. Nobody really followed my Facebook or my Twitter or anything like that. After I posted it I heard from lots of my teammates and friends basically saying, “Man I was thinking the same thing, I just didn’t know how to say it.”
DB: Did that open up another layer of conversation among your teammates and friends?
BW: It definitely did. I think it did that for a lot of people based on the feedback I got from around the country or the world. It did that for teammates of mine. I mention conversations I had about Ferguson with a white teammate of mine in my book. It allows us to talk about things without being afraid to say what we feel because it’s not politically correct.
DB: Do you feel reservation talking about these hot-button issues that aren’t sports because we are in an era when people look to be offended by what athletes say?
BW: Things I like to talk about are parenting, race, religion, economics, and politics. All the things that are taboo topics. I like talking about football but football is just my job. There are more important things that I like to talk about. It is tough sometimes. Even when I wrote the Facebook post and when I say at the end being encouraged because of the gospel, I had trepidation [about] pushing send because of that. I am vulnerable. The one thing I would never want to do is offend someone with my opinion. I go back and reread what I wrote because I don’t want someone to believe that I’m condemning them or saying they are a bad person. I do worry sometimes that somebody might be taking this the wrong way. On the flip side many things I’ve said I’ve got tremendous response from, so I think it’s getting through.
DB: Do you feel there is an expectation or unfair burden on African-American athletes to speak out on issues?
BW: That’s what I don’t want. Sometimes there is an issue you are drawn to or aware of so then you speak on it. Sometimes there are things that you aren’t as aware of and people feel like you should speak out even though you can’t speak to it intelligently. And that’s happened to me. Some people say, hey you need to speak on this. So you have to be careful about what you speak about because you want it to come from your heart. You want it to come from a place of authenticity and sincerity. More than speak about something just because. That’s when you have shallow words coming out. I feel like a lot of athletes speak out on certain topics and that’s their choice. I feel like playing in the NFL has given me a certain platform and I have a responsibility to shed light on some of these issues people may not understand. I have chosen to speak out because I don’t know how long people are going to listen to anything I have to say. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be on this earth. But my goal is to leave it better than when I got here.
DB: Are you discouraged at all that, despite the response your Facebook post and book have garnered, since Ferguson we have seen similar scenes and are dealing with the same issues?
BW: Yes, at times. Really that’s just the story of being black in America. And that’s the story of America in general. Many people who are white in this country cry over the state of race relations in this country. Many of the greatest abolitionists were white. Am I discouraged? Sometimes, yes. But I’m encouraged because I see people changing. I read the comments on my post and receive letters from people who tell me they didn’t realize how racist their thought process was and they read something I wrote and it makes them want to change.
DB: I remember when Barack Obama was elected there was a narrative that we are now in a post-racial society. Do you think that’s ever going be possible?
BW: It was short-sighted to think that because a brown man was in office it was going to change everything. What I think it did do was give people who are detractors a reason to voice their opinions. Same thing happened with Cam Newton this year. You see some closet racism revealed. It just shows that we still have issues.