Amid racial injustice dialogue, Doug Baldwin practicing different kind of athlete activism

After growing up in Florida as the son of a police officer, the Seahawks WR is spending his time speaking with law enforcement and political figures, trying to find concrete policy solutions.
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SI’s Jon Wertheim sat down with Doug Baldwin for Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports. Below is a portion of the interview; watch the rest Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.

Doug Baldwin has emerged as a star wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. But four weeks into this NFL season, he has more on his plate than catching passes. Like so many Americans, he’s been troubled by the wave of unarmed black citizens shot to death by law enforcement. Baldwin is an African-American male. He is also as the son of a Florida policeman. So the national conversation about power, racial injustice and aggressive policing echoes particularly loudly for him.

While other players around the NFL—and throughout sports—have protested with symbolic gestures and pointed words, Baldwin is practicing a different kind of athlete activism. He’s been spending his off-days arranging meetings with Seattle law enforcement and political figures, asking questions and seeking answers about police tactics and training, trying to find concrete policy solutions to what he sees as a crisis.

SI:From the outside looking in, it looks like Colin Kaepernick sparked this conversation and in football terms, you took the ball and ran with it? Is that how you see it?

Doug Baldwin: Sure, if that’s the way you wanna characterize it. Colin Kaepernick was the leader in stepping up and making the decision to do what he did. And he took the brunt of the hits for it, you know? And I’m thankful for that, because like you said, he got the conversation started.

SI:So, for your involvement, why you? Why now?

Baldwin: As a human being, when I see things going on in my community, I feel compelled to do something, to say something. And this is a situation that I was passionate about. You know, it just kinda hit my heart. My father being a police officer, growing up in the South, you know, different things that I’ve experienced, it was something that was very connected to me.

SI:What’s your relationship with Colin Kaepernick?

Baldwin: It’s a informative one. You know, we didn’t really have a personal relationship, prior to this. However, when he started to take a knee and speak out about the injustices and things that are going on in our communities, I felt compelled to reach out to him. 

SI:What’d you say when you reached out?

Baldwin: I knew that he was getting a lot of negativity thrown his way. Confusing messages, and I just wanted to let him know that there was a lot of people that supported him and his message.

SI:What do you mean, confusing messages?

Baldwin: Well, obviously the situation turned into an issue about the National Anthem, about disrespect for the military, which it was not intended to be. It was more so about the message. And I think that’s what I was was hinting at.

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SI:How’d he take that?

Baldwin: Positive. You know, it’s strange, throughout the entire course of it, he has stayed relatively positive. Through the death threats, through the negativity thrown at him, through social media and on the news he stayed relatively positive. And I think that’s a tribute to his true cause.

SI:You said death threats. Any of those come your way?

Baldwin: I had a few. A couple people told me to watch my back.

SI:How do you respond to that?

Baldwin: The same way Colin did. There’s issues going on in our society that people feel compelled to talk about, and I’m not gonna be quieted about it. And if something was to happen to me, I think that would just further prove the point that there are issues in our in our culture that need to be changed.

SI:You’re fluent in these topics. You mentioned your father was a policeman. Is there a sense of being singularly well positioned to be someone speaking on this issue?

Baldwin: I wouldn’t say that. But I feel like yes, I do have things that have happened in my life, that have kind of directed me in this way. Just like I said, the the feeling of being passionate about this topic. But I also do a lot of research. I read a lot. I try to gain as much knowledge as I possibly can, and listen to people, because I don’t know what I don’t know. And I’m trying to get as much information as I can.

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SI:What’s really struck you, reading about this?

Baldwin: I can’t say one specific thing. There’s so much information, so many things that have opened my eyes. And it’s on both sides. And what it comes down to is empathy for one another. You know, for the police officer to have empathy for the civilian, but also for the civilian to recognize that the police officer has a very difficult job.

SI:Protest can be powerful, but this activism that you’ve undertaken is very different. This is very practical. These are meetings. This is a fairly granular discussion. Why did you choose this approach?

Baldwin: Because I didn’t know all the information. I think that sometimes it’s very difficult for anybody to come to conclusion outside of their emotional response, and for me, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to eliminate my emotional response and make an informed decision.

SI:What have you learned?

Baldwin: Lots. That training for law enforcement is not universal across the country. There are a lot of different definitions of de-escalation, and I think that’s where the root of the problem is. It’s not providing our law enforcement with the training or the resources for them to protect themselves.

SI:Do these vary from region to region? Situation to situation? Neighborhood to neighborhood? I mean, what’s accounting for this difference?

Baldwin: I think all those things factor into it, particularly pertaining to training. It’s at the local level. There’s 18,000 [law enforcement agencies] in the country, and they all have their own specific training regimen, their own policies. And so it’s hard to impact them at a national level, because most of them are controlled at the local level.

SI:How much of this is about a culture and a power dynamic and how much of this is race?

Baldwin: It’s a good question. I think a lot of these issues are pushed by the narrative of race. And that sometimes can be the case, as we see systemic poverty intersect with race. But at the same time, there are other issues and other situations that occur when it has nothing to do with race, or we would perceive it to not have anything to do with race. And those situations are not okay, either. So, it’s it’s not just one microcosm of the community or our society. It’s a much greater picture than that.

SI:Have you had personal experience with aggressive policing?

Baldwin: I have. I was pulling up outside of my house in the neighborhood in Florida and I got pulled over. I was asked to get out of the car, get on the ground. Once they searched my car and did whatever they had to do, they told me that they thought the car was stolen and let me go on my way.

I can’t tell you what the context was. I can’t tell you for sure that that was profiling in any way. But it was a very scary situation. But again, I can’t help but put myself in the shoes of the officers. They were just doing their job. They felt like they were doing their job. And so I can’t blame them for that.

SI:You really see this from both sides?

Baldwin: I try to. It’s like I said, I try to put my emotional responses to the side and look at it objectively from both angles.

SI:Michael Bennett, your teammate, said that it would really help this effort if white player stood up and said something. You agree with that?

Baldwin: I do. I’m a religious man. I believe in God. And ultimately I don’t think it’s a skin issue. I think it’s a sin issue. What I mean is, whether you wanna look at it as a black-and-white thing or as a systemic poverty thing, it doesn’t matter. It’s just sin. And there are things that we can do as individuals, to help each other get to the point where it’s a more cohesive relationship.

SI:Your 14-year-old brother. What do you tell him? “If you have an encounter with police, you do X?” What do you tell him?

Baldwin: I told him you do everything he tells you to do. Put your hands on the steering wheel if you’re pulled over. Don’t make any sudden movements. Say, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.” Look him in the eye. Make sure that you’re complying with everything that he tells you to do.

SI:But what if he didn’t do anything?

Baldwin: Regardless. Just put your hands on the steering wheel. When somebody says, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong,” that’s a viable, reasonable response. “Why are you doing this to me? Why are you restraining me?” That’s understandable,but, I would say to my brother and to anybody in these situations that law enforcement have a very difficult job. Their lives are on the line. And sometimes it may be difficult for them to perceive what a true threat is. And so if you can eliminate that [uncertainty] in any manner, you should.

SI:How do we even begin to go about rebuilding trust?

Baldwin: I’m starting to develop a three pronged approach. We have to enforce training that is more emphasized on de-escalation tactics and crisis management control. Once we do that, then we have to put measures in place to reward the officers who are the good officers, which is the majority of them. Then we have to hold accountable the officers that are not abiding by the policies and those laws.