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Benjamin Watson: ‘After what we saw during the draft, we need that change’

The former NFL tight end offers his perspective on the league’s diversity issue

While watching the NFL draft last week, many of the league’s current and former African American executives, coaches and players privately expressed frustration about what unfolded. In phone calls and text messages among themselves, they reexamined the NFL’s glaring lack of diversity in decision-making roles as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in general managers and head coaches — jobs overwhelmingly occupied by white men — selecting players from their homes.

With 30 of the 32 first-round picks being players of color, including 29 black players, the optics reinforced commissioner Roger Goodell’s view that the league, which has an on-field workforce that’s about 70% black, is “not where we want to be” with inclusive hiring at the highest levels of football operations.

Benjamin Watson, a former first-round pick who spent 16 years playing tight end in the NFL and is a frequent commentator on social issues, was well aware of the league’s diversity problem in management before the draft. Watching the three-day event on television, however, was unsettling for Watson, and the jarring experience only strengthened his belief that the NFL must do more to address its lack of inclusion.

I wasn’t sure, under these circumstances, how the draft would be. But I enjoyed seeing that side of it. I enjoyed seeing families together. Even when the guys were being selected, and they couldn’t have huge parties [because of local and state social distancing guidelines], just to see those intimate moments, I thought that was a really cool dynamic. And even on the side of the men making the picks, the general managers and the coaches making the picks, my reaction was that it was great, because fans were getting to see a side of it that they really don’t get to see. But then it started to kind of hit me.

I’m seeing all these guys get picked. We know that the league is 70% black. We know that there’s only four head coaches [of color]. Every single year, we wonder if there are going to be more black head coaches hired. And, also, we always talk about the front offices. Obviously, the coaching is one part of it. But the other part of it is the decision-making. That comes from the owners, the team presidents and the general managers. And, in a regular draft situation, we really don’t get to see that like we saw it in this draft.

You’re looking at these split screens, and you have the general managers on one side and the [head] coaches on the other side, and team after team after team, there’re white faces. And then team after team after team, they’re selecting black players. All the stuff that we talk about, all the stuff that we wonder about, we got to see a visual of it. It was a visual like we’ve never seen before. And so for me, it just reminded me of the conversations that we have [about the lack of diversity], and proved that we’re not crazy for saying these things.

The issue is not the competence of those who are in the positions. We always want people of competence to be running organizations. We want people who deserve to be there. What I saw, though, was proof that for many prospective black general managers, or team presidents or, obviously, owners, they’re not privy to that pipeline. The relationships that put these people in place, they’re not privy to. Just watching it over and over and over again, it really drove it home.

I can remember so many times in training camp where the nephew, or the friend of a nephew of the general manager, got to hang around the team and be a ball boy or that sort of a thing. That’s where those relationships start. That’s where the pipeline starts. And those sorts of relationships, which any of us would use if we could, get people in the door. So what I kept seeing [during the draft] was not that these people were necessarily incompetent or shouldn’t be there, but that others who could be just as competent or just as good, who don’t have those relationships because of the color of their skin, aren’t able to get into those rooms.

It was just a reminder, a strong visual reminder, of who makes the decisions in the league. The draft laid it bare to see in a way we really haven’t before. We see how the children and the nephews and the nieces of these people start out in a better position to get those jobs to control the league over people, competent people, who don’t have the same skin color. Now, there can be no dispute of what we’ve been saying. We all saw it over and over and over again. There can be no dispute about the need to have more black men and women in these positions making decisions for these teams.

A lot of times you’ll hear [white] people say they don’t want to hear about this. They’ll ask you: ‘Why do you have to talk about race?’ Race is the context by how we live in this country. It always has been. And it will be for a long time. That can be detrimental, or it can be something that we use to understand where we are and how we need to get better. So there’s nothing wrong with talking about it. That’s the reality of the situation.

There was a time when black players weren’t allowed to play. Then there was a time when they could only play certain positions. When my father played in college, he couldn’t play middle linebacker. He couldn’t play center. And he definitely couldn’t play quarterback. That’s because those who were in leadership and ownership, those who were making decisions, wanted to give that responsibility of being a play-caller of the offensive line, the quarterback or the play-caller on defense [middle linebacker] to somebody who they felt they could trust. Many times, that trust comes down to one thing: Who looks like me? Who can I relate to?

That’s all well and good, but for a lot of people, for us, we’re not going to look like those people [in power]. We kept seeing that in the draft. It’s not that a [white] coach doesn’t deserve his job. And whenever we bring this up, that’s what certain people think. And that’s not what we’re saying, although that could be true in some situations. But that’s not the point. The point is that it takes intentional, planned action to break out of the comfort zones that humans have. That’s what we need now more than ever. After what we saw during the draft, we need that change.

Liner Notes

Selected 32nd overall by the New England Patriots in the 2004 NFL draft, Watson played 16 seasons in the league, including seven for the Patriots. A member of New England’s Super Bowl XXXIX championship team, Watson caught 547 passes for 6,058 yards and 44 touchdowns during his career. He had his best season statistically for the New Orleans Saints in 2015, establishing personal-bests with 74 receptions, 825 yards and six touchdowns. Watson also rose to leadership positions in the NFL Players Association, serving as a player rep and a member of the union’s executive committee. In 2018, Watson won the NFL’s Bart Starr Award, presented annually to the player who “best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.” Watson is the author of Under Our Skin, a book about using the power of Christianity to help heal America’s racial divide.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.