Now what? That's the question for Doug Baldwin and other athlete activists

1:59 | NFL
Doug Baldwin: Activism in sports today is comparable to Civil Rights Movement
Thursday December 15th, 2016

Doug Baldwin clutches a black tablet-sized notebook as he slides into a booth at a restaurant near the Seahawks' headquarters in Renton, Wash., and begins to scan the pages. It's all in there, laid out in impeccable handwriting, his personal steps toward social activism, complete with research, dates, contacts and diagrams.

It's early October, almost a month after the 28-year-old wideout and his teammates first locked arms during the national anthem at their season opener against the Dolphins in Seattle. That was before the death threats, before the emails that called Baldwin a n----- and told him to return to Africa (he's actually from Florida, and is one-quarter Filipino), before they wished he would tear an ACL.

He lingers over one page filled with thought bubbles: the points he wants to make, how each claim could be countered, how he could respond. Flip. His examination of the Constitution. Flip. The speech he delivered at a September press conference, when he asked that state attorneys general review their training policies for law enforcement. Flip. Research on the civil rights movement.

Flip. More notes, from his early conversations with 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, the face of athlete social activism in 2016, a player who turned a routine staple of pregame festivities, "The Star Spangled Banner," into a topic of heated debate. A mutual friend had put the two players in touch; Baldwin wanted to discuss the next steps. "If you want to lay down [during the national anthem], I'm down to lay down," he'd told Kaepernick.

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Earlier this morning Baldwin and three teammates met with the internal group that monitors the Seattle Police Department. As Baldwin has convened with police officers, mayors, governors, legislators, business leaders and activists this fall, he has promised them anonymity in the hope that they would speak freely. On this afternoon, as on others, he declines to detail exactly what they discussed.

Meanwhile, Baldwin has examined every word he utters publicly, scribbling revisions in the margins of his notebook. He considers what he wears when he makes appearances, donning a backwards hat when calling for policy review (to "show I'm just a normal dude") and putting on a business suit when addressing a legislative task force about the use of deadly force. He researches history, psychology and human behavior. He participates, with dozens of other NFL players, in a group text-message thread focused on activism. Throughout, he has had the backing of his coach, Pete Carroll, the Seahawks' organization and even, tacitly, the league, whose hands-off approach has only bolstered the argument that 2016 was a landmark year for athlete activism—as notable for what happened away from the playing field as for the games themselves.

This isn't just about Doug Baldwin. This is about the year athletes at all levels rediscovered their collective voice. It's about how the world around them is changing, and the issues—police brutality, criminal justice and education reform, income inequality and politics—they've chosen to address.

Their work extends beyond public displays like kneeling for the anthem. As Harry Edwards, the most prominent sociologist in sports, told Baldwin and his teammates before the season, "Follow-through is the difference between a movement and a mob."

That's also in Baldwin's notebook.

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At 74, Edwards has been at the forefront of social activism in sports for decades. He has advised the NFL, NBA and MLB about diversity, and he collected four Super Bowl rings throughout the 1980s and '90s, as a consultant to the 49ers. He planned to retire around 2000, when he stopped teaching full-time at Cal—and yet here he is, busier than ever this fall. “What I need,” Edwards says, “is three or four clones.”

In recent months Edwards took more than 70 calls from athletic directors, coaches and sports executives. They wondered: How should we handle these athletes' demonstrations? How should we talk to players who are distraught over Donald Trump's election? This surge in activism was not something they'd encountered before, and they didn't want to stifle voices (or foster distractions). “I try to explain what's at stake,” Edwards says. “We're talking about Jack Johnson [becoming the first African-American heavyweight champion]. We're talking about Jackie Robinson [integrating baseball].”

Edwards met with some teams and execs in person—the NBA's Heat and Warriors, the NFL's Dolphins, 49ers, Lions and Seahawks. He has visits scheduled at Vanderbilt and Kansas. He also speaks several times a week with Kaepernick. The next time they talk he plans to explain why Kaepernick should have voted (he didn't); that even if he didn't care for Trump or Hillary Clinton, there were “critically important” issues—the death penalty, legalized marijuana—on California's ballot.

What's happening with Kaepernick and his counterparts is a response to the world they live in, says Edwards, adding that it has always been this way. He divides the history of athlete activism into four phases: 1.) pre-World War II, with events that took place largely outside of the U.S. but shined a spotlight on segregation (Jesse Owens winning four Olympic gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler in 1936, for example); 2.) post-World War II, after the major sports had been integrated and the focus shifted to desegregation; 3.) the gold standard of athlete activism, in the '60s and '70s, when major stars took nonviolent action to express their views (see: Ali, Muhammad; Brown, Jim; Russell, Bill; Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem; etc.). The fourth phase, Edwards says, aligned closely with what became the Black Lives Matter movement and “the impacts and circumstances of African-Americans.” All phases built toward 2016, the apogee—so far—of modern athlete activism.

Edwards predicts a fifth phase as a response to what he imagines happening in the U.S. under Trump. That phase would include more events like what happened in November 2015 at the University of Missouri, when the football team threatened to boycott its season unless school president Tim Wolfe was removed amidst accusations that he'd failed to address racism on campus. Edwards calls Wolfe's subsequent resignation a “fifth-wave” event.

Edwards forecasts similar measures in the years ahead—a college basketball team that refuses to play in the national title game, for instance, or student-athletes who join campus protests if Trump acts on his campaign rhetoric about, for example, stop-and-frisk policing. “If Trump does anything close to what he proposed, you'll find athletes more directly and more militantly involved,” Edwards says. “It's going to be more intensified, beyond dialogue. It's already moving in that direction. It's inevitable. The only question is when.”

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Carmelo Anthony felt he had to do something. In April 2015, a 25-year-old African-American named Freddie Gray died in police custody in Melo's hometown of Baltimore. When video of Gray's arrest showed him being pinned to the ground and shoved in a police van by officers while he screamed in agony, protests broke out. Anthony, the star Knicks forward, didn't call a news conference, didn't print the young man's name on his sneakers or tweet out a hashtag. Instead he went to Baltimore and marched alongside thousands of outraged citizens, demanding justice.

But there were more deaths, more injustices. In July, after a sniper shot five Dallas police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally, Anthony composed an Instagram post, urging his fellow athletes to call on Congress and demand change to what he described as "broken" prison, education and social systems. As a next step he's considering assembling a coalition of athletes across sports to maximize their impact.

Anthony hadn't planned on attending the ESPYs that month, but his friends LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had read his post, and they shared similar concerns. Together they hatched a plan. At the awards show in L.A., a typically light affair, they took the stage wearing black suits and delivered a speech about police brutality that had nothing to do with sports. “The problems are not new,” Anthony told the audience. “The violence is not new. And the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.” Their words reverberated around the Internet.

Two months later, on the NFL's opening weekend, Anthony watched the Seahawks link arms while Kaepernick and several other players knelt for the anthem. Others raised their fists. Afterward, Anthony spoke with Kaepernick. Anthony said he appreciated the symbolism in all the gestures, but he remained focused, like Baldwin, on action. "I don't think you'll see [as many] of the gestures," Anthony said in late November, as he handed out food and supplies to residents in East Harlem, as part of an event organized by his foundation.

That's what makes sports activism different in 2016, more like what happened in the '60s, says Anthony. “I think you'll see more people doing things. People are starting to feel more comfortable using their voice.”

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Finding that voice is the hard part. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins had never paid great attention to the news, never done this much research. But the momentum of the movement today has changed that. “It's still building,” he says. “I got sick of all the hashtags, all the T-shirts, because eventually they come off.”

Jenkins raised a fist during the anthem on Sept. 19, before his team trounced the Bears. But his subsequent meeting with Philadelphia's police commissioner and his visit to Capitol Hill last month to meet with Congressional officials, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, meant something else. “The more people I meet, the bigger this seems,” he says. “But I also feel better equipped.”

In the fall, Jenkins and two teammates, Ron Brooks and Steven Means, rode along in a Philadelphia police car and observed as officers tried to better connect with their community. Jenkins started to see police brutality more as a “symptom of a broken justice system.” He felt empathy for officers who wanted better training and more emphasis on rehabilitating offenders. Many of those officers wanted change as much as he did.

He also saw how the dynamic between police and the community varied from one block to the next. At one stop officers would converse with citizens, sometimes even hugging. At another, the officers responded to a shooting and encountered a woman who said she rarely ventured outside. Gunfire was so common in the area, she hadn't noticed that a bullet had broken her window. As Jenkins listened, the complications of police work became obvious. He'd not considered the officers' vantage point before.

Intent, he found, was one thing. Execution would be exponentially more complex.

“There have been points where I said, O.K., screw it; I can't do this anymore, there's no solution,” Baldwin says. “But that's a trap. That's how we got on this path.”

On Halloween, Baldwin settles into the same booth at the same restaurant, his black notebook in tow. He had returned home late the day before, after a tough loss in New Orleans, and yet he has three meetings—with a politician, an advocacy group and a company that makes body cameras—scheduled for the afternoon.

A month into his efforts, Baldwin has participated in more than 15 visits. Some have been enlightening, others less so—“all rainbows and butterflies,” he says.

One Seahawks player has been routinely accompanying Baldwin to some meetings, but others are injured, limiting their availability. “A lot of my teammates,” Baldwin says, pausing for five seconds to consider what he says next, "it's hard for them to find solutions. They don't know the next steps. They feel hopeless, and I don't discount that. I feel like that sometimes. I don't know if I'm going to move the needle. But I'm like: F--- it, I gotta try."

Baldwin plays down his frustrations, but they're evident in his tone and words. He hasn't spoken with Kaepernick in weeks. The text thread with NFL players has all but died out. He notes that the media has mostly stopped writing about his efforts. He is struggling with sustaining momentum, with how to follow through, all while continuing to play at a high level. Sometimes Baldwin needs a few days away from all this, if only to clear his mind.

“There have been points where I said, O.K., screw it; I can't do this anymore, there's no solution,” he says. “But that's a trap. That's [how we got on] the path we've been going down.”

Every time Baldwin, a Stanford graduate with a degree in Science and Technology in Society, scrutinizes an issue, his research and conversations add nuance. He watched a training video for the Seattle PD in which an officer pulls someone over, puts a gun to the person's nose and calls that a technique for "de-escalation." That angered Baldwin, but then he spoke to officers who'd followed the same training methods for decades and had arrived home safely every night. Real change meant convincing those officers that new methods would be safer for everyone. “I was hoping to have something concrete to work with by now,” Baldwin says. He sighs.

He's heartened, though, by the interest of one guest who often accompanies him to meetings, the Seahawks' 65-year-old (and white) sensei, Pete Carroll. The coach listens, asks questions and regularly allows Baldwin to update the locker room on his mission.

Baldwin has been focused on outfitting officers with body cameras, though he's no longer as certain of their necessity as he once was. A piece in The New York Times Magazine that outlined some complicating factors—how the release of body-cam footage could compromise informants, how the volume of video could bankrupt police departments as records requests flow in from the public—gave him pause. “Complex,” he says again.

For all his frustration, Baldwin still sees the movement spreading to colleges and high schools, even to youth football and other sports. The basketball team at Kent State, for instance, made national news in November when players waded into the stands before the anthem, escorting fans onto the court and locking arms. “What we did,” says Jimmy Hall, a senior forward, “started with the Seahawks.”

Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

When Edwards speaks to teams he starts by telling them that for athletes to maximize their impact, white players need to step forward too. “Most white athletes have remained silent,” Edwards says, “other than some of them saying, 'I support Donald Trump.' Even foreign-born athletes have more to say than white American athletes. Just one star would have a tremendous impact.

“That's why you don't see much [activism] in baseball and hockey, where players are predominantly white,” he continues. (Many of those players are also not American, it's worth pointing out.) “Same for most of the people in the stands.” He believes that black athletes play in front of people who are “adamantly” opposed to what they're saying.

Like everything else in play here, getting engagement from white athletes isn't as simple as it might sound. In 2015, Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson, who is black, published a book, Under Our Skin, examining the racial divide in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Charleston, S.C. He posited using the gospel as a bridge between races and suggested that the first step is honest conversations—the exact kind players are having now. In November the Ravens held a public forum on race and invited players from all backgrounds, men who interact daily but rarely discuss ethnicity. “The black-white thing is something we all know is there,” Watson says. “We get along, we work together—but we don't know how to talk about this stuff. We need to allow our white counterparts to express themselves without [immediately] condemning them as bigots and racists. That's not fair to them.”

One obstacle to open dialogue is the racist reaction that black athletes receive online, usually from anonymous posters. In October, for example, Wisconsin basketball forward Nigel Hayes complained about what he called the hypocrisy of amateurism in college sports. After he showed up on ESPN's College Gameday set in Madison carrying a sign that read BROKE COLLEGE ATHLETE, ANYTHING HELPS, along with his Venmo handle, brokebadger1, vitriol filled his Instagram and Twitter feeds. He had faced another wave of hatred when he became one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to prevent the NCAA from capping the value of an athletic scholarship at the cost of attending school. “[There has been] a massive awakening and increase in consciousness for athletes,” he says. “It isn't easy.”

To those who tell him to shut up and play basketball, Hayes laughs. “I can't play basketball all day,” he says. “But I'm black 24-7.”

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Inside a ballroom at Seattle University on Nov. 8, Baldwin grabs a microphone and tells an audience of 100-plus local high school students and police officers to put away their devices. They've assembled for a student leadership conference to discuss discrimination, and Baldwin—one day removed from a crucial win over the Bills—is the keynote speaker.

The frustration that was so evident on Halloween has dissipated. Baldwin knows many of the officers in the audience; he met with them as part of his dive into social activism in the fall. Now they're expanding their dialogue from those meetings, going into their communities together. That's what Baldwin wanted from the outset.

“Dang,” he says jokingly, spying a cellphone in the hands of one officer in the audience. “I said, Put your phone down. You're supposed to be enforcing the rules; even you can't follow them!” The audience laughs along.

Baldwin speaks for almost 20 minutes. He tells the students about the time in high school when police pulled him over in his hometown of Gulf Breeze, Fla., and how the officers made him lie on the ground while they checked whether his car had been stolen. He tells the crowd that he was angry: “Pissed off, like these motherf------ pulled me over because I'm black.” But if his experiences in the fall taught him anything, it was empathy, and now he wonders if perhaps those officers in Gulf Breeze were simply doing their jobs. In September he felt as if he had all the answers; now he's not so sure. After his meetings, he changed his views on several issues, but not his resolve to see substantive change—the difference between a mob and a movement.

Afterward the students ask Baldwin questions, none about football. What would he say to the family of someone who had been killed by police? How empathetic would he be then? His answer stretches for almost three minutes and speaks to his evolution over the fall. “Do I think it's justified?” he says. “Absolutely not. Somebody died, right? But these situations have been happening since before you were born. We have to work to fix that. What I'm saying is, you can't allow negativity to promote more negativity.”

The conversation reminded Baldwin, who's engaged, of something his marriage counselor recently told him: “Arguing, debating, pushing—it's the price of something deeper.”

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