“You Want Our Talent, But Not Our Humanity” – The Start of Another NFL Season

Athletics, Race

The start of the football season began with an embrace of unity. What followed? An outpouring of boos from the socially distant crowd at Arrowhead stadium.

American sports are at a crossroads. In times of fear and uncertainty, we often look to athletics to provide joy, inspiration, and clarity. But social justice will no longer afford our national pastimes the ability to obscure our collective lens. Indeed, only the past few months without sports—those empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums—have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on something far more important: police brutality against Black men in America. 

Being a Black athlete has never been easy. There is far too much pressure to keep your head down and to, “just play.” Yet never have we needed more from our most prominent Black icons. Recently, professional athletes, recognizing their reach and the power of symbols, have raised awareness of long-burning issues. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.

As a Black boy growing up in Washington D.C., I was nine years old when I pleaded with my parents for season tickets to see my favorite football team. My home team, Washington Football, had at one time bucked the status quo by fielding Doug Williams, the first Black Superbowl-winning MVP quarterback. I marveled at what the players had achieved on the field, however, as a child I did not see beyond. 

As a Black man, I still marvel at the athletic achievement, but I know now the more important achievements are cultural. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing—a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos once stood in protest, Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have knelt, using their influence to start national conversations. From fists heard around the world to kneeling under the flag the debate continues as Americans are fiercely divided on whether kneeling is dishonorable or appropriate, muting the original reason for the public display—police violence towards Black men. 

Each game day, we applaud Black men for athletic achievement, but every day, we fail to protect them in society. Too often we take the violence as a given, requiring parents to continue having grim conversations with their Black sons on how to navigate themselves safely in our current America. But, at this given crossroads society must now adapt as we adjust the lens.

Seattle Seahawks Head Football Coach Pete Carroll, addressing the media, said, “We all are seeing the truth of how Black people are being treated in our streets and … law enforcement is a huge issue to our guys, because they’re frightened for their lives. They’re frightened for the lives of their loved ones and their children.” 

Coach Carroll is right. There is a Black man in your life who needs you to listen to his story, to understand the daily challenges he faces because of the color of his skin. To know that he fears for the safety of his son.

Coach Carroll continued, “Our players are screaming at us… Can you hear me? They just want to be respected, … [and] accepted just like all of our white children and families…”

As another National Football League season starts, we must use this as an opportunity for advancement. We must honor the work being done by so many to fight for justice in America. You want our talent but not our humanity and that will no longer go unnoticed. 

A Beloved Team & A Beloved Mentor

Mentorship

The last time the Cleveland Browns won, I texted Dr. Kevin Olson.

During the 2016 season, I arrived very early one morning, to a small clinic on the West Side of Columbus. As I knocked on the side door, I was greeted by a middle-aged red-headed woman named Tina. This was Dr. Olson’s right-hand woman–sweet as pie but tough as nails–knowing exactly how to give Dr. Olson a dose of his own medicine. She tried to prepare me for what would happen next, but none existed. The back door to the clinic flew open, entering a man yelling what I heard as offensive football play-calls, and the more I got to knew him, it became the most accurate assumption. After he sat his black briefcase down in his office, I went to greet him. “Good morning, sir. My name is Jason Campbell.”

“Jason Campbell, the quarterback?” he posited.

“Something like that, sir” I smiled.

I felt automatically accepted. Jason Campbell, my namesake, had played for the NFL Cleveland Browns at one point in his multi-team career. From that day forth, I was the former QB from his beloved football Browns—young Jason Campbell—as he referred to me. Each day Dr. Olson would share a piece of Browns’ history, which included rattling off the entire list of players who once carried the reigns for the Browns.

Sipe. Kosar. Ryan. Graham. Couch. Nelsen. Phipps. Plum. Anderson. Testaverde. McDonald. McCoy. Weeden. Frye. Hoyer. Kizer. O’Connell. Holcomb. Quinn. Ninowski. Dilfer. McCown. Garcia. All men who have hurled the pigskin for the Browns for at least 10 games and Dr. Olson knew each one, their college institution, and their NFL winning percentage (occasionally off by .1).

Every day in clinic was filled with yelling, laughter, frustration and insight. Once, after we had addressed a patient’s rotator cuff tear with multiple physical exam maneuvers, the patient went on to list four or five more problems he wanted Dr. Olson to assess. “You just tore up, from the floor up, aren’t ya?” Dr. Olson said, aloud. With no delay, the patient responded, “Yes sir. I am!” Dr. Olson’s patients had come to love his lighthearted demeanor interwoven with the knowledge of a medical savant.

For me, these little moments have become threads of memories, which are woven into a picture that show the legacy of a great man. A man who embodied the true character of a doctor. Family physician trained, Dr. Olson received a master faculty appointment by Ohio University for his exceptional contributions to clinical training in this sphere. But there was more to Dr. Olson than any award could describe. He made his patients feel whole even when they were the most ill, just like only a die-hard, ever hopeful Browns’ fan could. I walked into countless patient rooms where the entire family had been treated by Dr. Olson—grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter. This all-encompassing trust was shared by more than a few in the community.

If I wasn’t sure of it before the memorial service, I was absolutely certain of it after. Lines and lines of people flooded the funeral home: from the bustling main hall, the filled lobby, and through the parking lot. Multiple photographs of Dr. Olson and his wonderful family, friends, and colleagues were on display. The most lasting one…the one of him in his Cleveland Browns sweatshirt.

A beloved physician proudly representing his beloved team.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Baker Mayfield perform in his splendid brash manner, as he had done for the Sooners of Oklahoma, I knew a cheerful Dr. Olson was reliving the 1986 days of Bernie Kosar, with an incomparable grin on his face. Finally, his team looked like the team he grew up loving.

For me, Thursday September 20th, 2018 was more than a football victory & more than a team overcoming the weight of the world; it was manifested joy by a beloved and unforgettable man.

After his passing, it is near impossible to fathom a Browns’ win without imagining Dr. Olson’s excitement. I always had difficulty understanding his love for the Cleveland Browns with what I saw to be their errors, burdens and faults. But, now I realize those were the exact human qualities that made him love his team and his patients. As a physician, his passion for his patients—through their sickness, addictions, and infections—gave him purpose so, they too, would heal again.