When Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins gave an emotional statement on Dec. 15, 2014, explaining why he wore a t-shirt with the names Tamir Rice and John Crawford III — two young black males who had recently been gunned down by police in Ohio — to a pre-game warmup, he said that “a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.”
Nearly two years later on Aug. 26, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game; he later explained that it was his way of drawing attention to police brutality and racial injustice in the country.
Since then, at least 13 other NFL players and one women’s professional soccer player have expressed some form of protest during the national anthem, either by taking a knee or sitting down altogether. Others have even taken to raising their fists in what appears to be a tribute to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute during a track and field medal ceremony during the 1968 Summer Olympics.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Hawkins spoke about his own experience protesting within the NFL, the weight of Kaepernick’s decision, and a professional athlete’s place in conversations about injustice.
“I think what Colin did was super courageous. There’s never been a protest that was 100 percent accepted,” Hawkins said. “I have that much more respect for Colin and appreciate what he’s going for, having gone through that myself.”
Hawkins’ decision to wear the shirt drawing attention to Rice and Crawford III — 12- and 22-year-old black males fatally shot down by police within three months of each other in Ohio that year — sparked its fair share of controversy within the community.
The day after he wore the shirt, Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeffrey Follmer railed against Hawkins: The union head called his shirt “pathetic,” argued that the shooting of Rice by rookie cop Timothy Loehmann was justified, and demanded that Hawkins apologize for his action. Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams responded to the controversy on Dec. 16, saying that an apology was unnecessary.
Hawkins seemed largely unfazed by the responses to his t-shirt, though he did admit in his 2014 statement that the risk initially scared him.
“You’re not doing it for people to love you,” he told BuzzFeed News. “You do it for people who are indifferent or maybe unaware, who might feel it’s a shame about what’s going on.”
He also acknowledged that despite the backlash he faced in 2014, Kaepernick potentially had more to lose when he staged his protest.
“Colin is a household name. Him doing it is a big deal,” he said. “Mine was a blip on the radar.”
Shortly after his refusal to stand for the anthem, Kaepernick and Hawkins were connected through mutual friends and have exchanged a few text messages. Hawkins did not elaborate on the nature of their conversation but said that despite his experience having taken a similar stance on the same issue, the 49ers quarterback had not come to him for guidance.
“This was well thought out, not something he came across,” Hawkins said. “He didn’t ask me for advice."
Nonetheless, Hawkins said that professional athletes should not be expected to assume the role of advocates for social change, especially since the reputations they create by taking such actions are virtually unshakeable, no matter how much time passes.
“Everybody has a fire that burns different,” he said. “You can’t pressure somebody to do something like that until they’re ready.”
But for Hawkins, his moment of protest will continue to stand out as a major highlight during his time in the NFL.
“Being able to use my platform for that was the proudest moment in my career,” he said. “I’m sure Colin will be able to say the same [about his].”