Activist athletes are bringing out the worst in police unions

By Aaron Leibowitz

When athletes speak out on political issues, it’s impossible to measure the direct influence of their actions. Presumably, there are sports fans who saw Derrick Rose and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts and decided to learn more about the Eric Garner case, or call their elected officials, or participate in a Black Lives Matter protest. One would think there are kids in St. Louis who saw five Rams players raise their hands in the air and asked their parents to explain what’s going on.

Surely, a father somewhere was moved to tears hearing Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins defend himself for wearing a shirt demanding “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford,” telling the media: “I have a 2-year-old little boy. … The No. 1 reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin scares the living hell out of me.”

Tony Dejak/AP Photo

Athletes are helping put a face on a national movement, and they’re using their platform to amplify the calls for justice coming largely from the streets.

But in an even more obvious sense, the impact of activist athletes can be measured by the responses they are provoking from police unions. The unions insist that, by taking a stand, these athletes are being disrespectful and offensive. They are speaking out of turn. They don’t know the facts. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll shut up and do their job and let the cops keep doing theirs.

However much activist athletes ultimately accomplish for this cause, they can already hang their hats on this: in response to their acts of protest, police and their unions have been exposed as petty, unsympathetic and unwilling to look inward.

Consider the case of Hawkins. On Monday, Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association president Jeffrey Follmer released a statement demanding an apology from the Browns for Hawkins’ shirt. “It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law,” Follmer said. “They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.”

On Tuesday, Follmer went on MSNBC to explain why Hawkins should keep quiet, and then to defend the killing of Tamir Rice. The video of the incident, Follmer said, clearly shows that the officer was justified in using deadly force. When asked what he would say to black parents, such as Hawkins, who are worried about their kids, Follmer said: “How about this: listen to police officers’ commands.”

He added: “The nation needs to realize, when we tell you to do something, do it.”

There is plenty to be said about Follmer’s vitriolic comments, and about the specifics of Rice’s death (he was carrying a pellet gun; he was shot immediately upon the cops’ arrival; he was 12), but the point is this: Andrew Hawkins is defending a) his right to call for justice without having to apologize, and b) his 2-year-old son’s right to live. What is Jeffrey Follmer defending? Has he, or anyone at the Cleveland Police Department, watched the video of Rice’s shooting — or, perhaps, read the Justice Department’s recent report on gross brutality and incompetence within the CPD — and thought, ‘We can do better’? Have they considered what actions they can take to prevent future tragedies and misconduct? Do they even care?

The same questions can be asked of the St. Louis Police, whose union called the Rams’ “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture “tasteless, offensive and inflammatory,” and demanded punishment for the players as well as a “very public apology” from the Rams and the NFL. In both the Browns and Rams cases, the teams and the league sided with the players. When the NFL is supporting its players instead of law enforcement, you know something is wrong.

It’s fair to note that the unions, not police officers themselves, are the ones responding to these athletes — and unions always side with their employees. But do they really need to say anything at all? Do they realize how silly it looks to demand apologies from sports stars who simply decided to exercise their First Amendment rights? Instead of having Follmer on TV to defend Tamir Rice’s death, why not have the Cleveland police chief explain to Andrew Hawkins why his son is going to be OK?

Hawkins, the Rams’ Five, Derrick Rose, the UC Berkeley women’s basketball team, and scores of other athletes who have chosen to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, are putting their strength, courage and moral compass on national display. The police and their unions, meanwhile, are displaying tone deafness, stubbornness and immaturity.

In 2009, Sgt. James Crowley arrested black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for “breaking and entering” into his own home in Cambridge, Mass. President Obama, upon learning of the incident, declared that Crowley had acted “stupidly.” Maybe, in an alternate universe, the Cambridge Police would have taken criticism from the leader of the country to heart. Maybe the officer really had acted stupidly. Maybe there was some self-reflection to be done.

Instead, Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association president Steve Killian demanded a presidential apology — not only to Crowley, but “to all law enforcement personnel throughout the entire country.”

When all criticism warrants an apology, and when all calls to fix a broken system are deemed disrespectful, then legitimate change from the inside becomes impossible. Pressure from the outside becomes the only way. Thanks to the NFL, of all places — thanks to believers in justice like Hawkins and the stubborn responses of people like Follmer — that reality remains abundantly clear.

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