Why I Wore the Shirt
The NFL wants to make players’ public lives conform to its standards. But when exceptional issues call for us to speak our minds, the league and the fans need to see us as men, with our own opinions and the freedom to express them
BY JOHNSON BADEMOSI
I woke up at 6 a.m. Sunday before our game against the Colts, far earlier than I usually would for an afternoon game. I felt anxious, upset and angry all at once.
The previous week, at the Cleveland Browns facility, a huddle of teammates expressed the rage, frustration and alienation we felt after the recent non-indictments of police officers following the murders of unarmed black men. A week earlier several Rams players put their hands up during player introductions, and the entire country took notice. We knew about Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, but we didn’t know what to do. We all had our influences—different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural upbringings, levels of education and degrees of passion. Each of us had a decision to make. Mine was the easiest.
We walk a tightrope as NFL athletes. We all have lives and opinions outside of sports, yet the NFL today is designed to suppress and confine our public lives to its standards. Team culture tells you shut up, follow the crowd and do your job. Anyone who steps away from that standard runs the risk of upsetting someone who may control your means for providing for your family. The NFL drives this standard. They tell us to wear pink for these games and camouflage for these games. While I embrace those causes, there are other things that are just as important to me as an individual. Yet, in the past, whenever players have tried to distinguish themselves, they’ve faced fines for doing so.
In its quest to deliver one uniform message of social consciousness, the league betrays its goal. True social consciousness and dialogue in America is never singular, never uniform. It is myriad and collaborative by definition.
It was with all of this in mind that I drove to First Energy Stadium on Sunday morning. The night before, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls wore a T-shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” during pregame warm-ups. Those were Eric Garner’s last words before a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold and Garner died in the confrontation with multiple officers. The dispute began over Garner’s selling loose cigarettes. In an effort to express my anger, fear and feelings of solidarity with those who took to the streets, I wrote those same words—“I Can’t Breathe”—on the back of my own warm-up T-shirt.
As I wore it in the locker room before taking the field in pregame, some guys automatically knew what it meant and supported me. Others didn’t understand the message and asked about it, and I was happy to explain. After all, awareness was the original goal. I received a couple of side eyes, too, from men who didn’t agree with what the words stood for. I had teammates in the locker room telling me, “Man, you’ve got to be careful with all that.” And with most issues, I am. But exceptional circumstances require exceptions to be made. I considered this to be exceptional.
The NFL tells us to wear pink for these games and camouflage for these, yet when players have tried to distinguish themeselves they've faced fines for doing so.
Two months ago the NFLPA agreed with the NFL on a revamped drug-testing program, which put into action several policies ratified with the collective bargaining agreement of three years ago. It was a culmination of months of posturing and weeks of negotiations. As the player rep for the Browns, I had a small part in the process and not a few opinions on what went right and how the procedure could have been improved. I was approached by editors at The MMQB about a column, but ultimately decided I couldn’t express the kind of strong opinions they were looking for. As a rep, I felt the need to represent my Browns teammates, and I was reticent to step out with my own takes. But this issue as I see it—police killings as a symptom of the systematic and historical devaluing of black lives—seemed too big to ignore. Had I stayed silent, I would have betrayed everything my parents taught me about standing up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and everything I learned in school about hegemony, political systems and social change.
I understand that I am dressed in my own layers of privilege (education, socioeconomic status, etc.) that make me different from Eric Garner, but I still share many of his experiences as a black man in this country. Find me a black NFL player who can say they’ve never been stopped by police and offered a nonsense reason such as, “Oh, we thought your windows were too heavily tinted.”
A lot of fans wear the jersey, and they consider it a costume, not representative of a human being.
Regardless of background, many of us saw in Garner and Rice and Brown a mirror into the lives we might’ve had if we hadn’t become NFL players.
When athletes step into the social sphere and express opinions on issues outside of sports, we’re often met with one of two reactions. The majority of people thank us for peeling back the curtain on identities shrouded by uniforms. A small minority of people respond with what amounts to, “Shut up and play.” These are the same people who buy jerseys and tickets to games, or watch religiously on television. They help pay our salaries, and because of that they think they have a right to tell us what we can and can’t say, essentially, what kind of men we ought to be. A lot of fans wear the jersey, and they consider it costume, not representative of a human being. Some support us as players but not as men. That the league is predominantly African-American helps explain why. I’m happy to say I don’t want you as a fan if that’s how you think.
My T-shirt was a tribute to the life of Eric Garner and to the countless black men victimized by our country’s never-ending hegemony, and an expression of the feelings that my teammates and I felt while we were discussing these issues. Others had their own ways of supporting the cause, keeping it in their thoughts, prayers, etc. and I fully support that as well. Ultimately, every individual has to do what is best for himself and his family. I’m not losing any sleep over my decision.
Johnson Bademosi is in his third season with the Cleveland Browns. He attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., and Stanford and was signed by the Browns as an undrafted free agent in 2012. His Twitter handle is @j_bademosi24.