Why this lifelong Eagles fan won’t be watching the Super Bowl: Story of a Protest in 7 Parts.
The day I turned 11 years old, my grandfather was in hospice, enduring the final stages of stomach cancer. My parents made sure we celebrated my birthday, no doubt to try to ensure some sense of normalcy. But my grandfather’s condition hung over the party like an ominous storm cloud, and the celebration felt hollow.
A month later my grandfather died. It was 4 days before Christmas. My entire family was devastated. And I watched my mom — the strongest woman I’ve ever known — struggle to do everything she could to hide from us that she was falling apart.
A month after that, my father — a high school track coach — brought his team on an overnight trip to New York to compete in an indoor track meet. That night, the only time he ever spent a night away from our family, my childhood home caught fire and burned down. I watched as firemen smashed out my bedroom windows with an axe to let the fire breathe, and flames shot out of the roof into the night sky.
These traumatic events, ripe with sadness and deep emotion, undoubtedly impacted me deeply. They are forever burned deep into my psyche. Yet, as I sit here today, I can’t remember shedding a single tear over any of them.
The night that year when I remember crying like a colicky baby?
It was when Keith Jackson dropped two passes in the end zone during the first Philadelphia Eagles playoff game I was old enough to remember.
I remember that game like it was played yesterday. The thick fog that rolled into Soldier Field just before kickoff like some deranged setting of a Steven King novel, hanging so heavy over the field that my dad and I could barely follow the game on our family’s 33-inch “big screen” television. The entire game was almost unwatchable — yet, still clear enough to see Jackson, the sure-handed rookie from Oklahoma who had spent the entire regular season revolutionizing the tight-end position before our eyes, dropping two balls that Randall Cunningham had thrown right between his numbers.
When the final whistle blew, the Eagles had lost 20–12.
Cue the waterworks.
You would not be unreasonable to judge me for this. But, you would also not be a Philadelphia sports fan. Because, if you were, there would be no judgment. You’d understand. In fact, you’d almost certainly have a few stories like this yourself.
Mitch Williams serving up a meatball to Joe Carter and ending the ’93 Phils magical season. Scott Stevens lighting up Eric Lindros and concussing him at center ice, destroying the Flyers best chance at a Stanley Cup since the 70’s. The Sixers trading Charles Barkley only to watch him take the Suns to the NBA finals the same year we drafted Shawn Bradley ahead of Penny Hardaway. Randall Cunningham wrecking his knee in the first game of a season when the Eagles had one of the best defenses ever; Smarty Jones shattering his leg in the Belmont Stakes; Ronde Barber’s pick-6 off Donovan in the NFC Championship game; T.O. doing sit-ups in his driveway as he wrecked the Eagles season; the hometown teams trading away Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen and Rick Tocchet and Mark Recchi and Allen Iverson and Andre Igoudala and LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson.
I didn’t cry after every one of these events. But my feelings in experiencing them are nonetheless embedded in my memory like any other trauma — connections still shared with hundreds of thousands of people in the Philadelphia area.
On the few occasions when being a Philly sports fan brings something other than heartbreak — when it raises the potential for unrestrained joy and celebration, like it does this Sunday, when the Eagles are playing in the Super Bowl with a chance to win their first championship in over half-a-century — it is imperative to enjoy them deeply.
Philly sports fans know such moments are few and far between.
Which is why so few of my family and friends can comprehend why in the world I’ll be spending this Sunday in Colorado, far away from Minneapolis, with no plans of being anywhere near a television.
It is a story that starts in my living room, checking my email on a slow weekend morning.
It was the first Saturday in September when I got the mass email from Shaun King linking to his latest article. The social justice commentator for the New York Daily News, King’s earlier writing for the Daily Kos had served as my guide on the path to (self-applied) “woke” status following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. Throughout 2014 and 2015, I read his columns with religious fervor, seeking to understand what was happening in this country. When he solicited volunteers for what would turn out to be a short-lived justice-reform organization, I immediately offered to serve as a state director. And now he was now calling for a boycott of the NFL over the league-wide blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick.
King’s call to action immediately pushed me to my edge. For as long as I could remember, my autumn Sundays were dictated entirely by the Eagles, my plans determined by what time they were playing and where I’d be watching the game. The notion of not watching at all seemed almost unimaginable.
More, prior to King’s email, I hadn’t dedicated a tremendous amount of thought to Kaepernick. I was convinced someone would sign him — there simply weren’t enough good quarterbacks in the NFL for him to remain unemployed for long. And I was far from convinced that he was being blackballed.
But King’s article piqued my interest. The man rarely wrote about things that lacked importance. So, as I’m prone to do, I jumped online to explore what the professionals who write about football for a living were saying about why Kaepernick still wasn’t signed.
First, there was the suggestion that Kaepernick was something of a dinosaur — a mobile, run-first quarterback in a vertical passing league. This argument, which sounded of the old criticisms of “athletic” (i.e., black) quarterbacks, immediately rang hollow to me. And when I checked that theory out a bit more, the data confirmed my skepticism: A review of 2017 opening day rosters revealed starters Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Carr, Andrew Luck, Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Marcus Mariota, and DeShaun Watson — all fast, athletic quarterbacks who could scramble, extend plays, and hurt opposing teams with their legs…the exact style that Kaepernick had employed to lead the 49ers to two straight NFC Championship games. So it clearly wasn’t Kaepernick’s style of play that had led to his exclusion from the league.
Then there was the idea that Kaepernick was asking for too much money from other teams after choosing to opt out of his multi-million dollar contract with San Francisco. This one seemed to be the one with the most energy (and self-righteous anger) behind it. And, initially, it seemed to carry some weight — after all, Kaepernick had opted out of a huge, 9-figure contract with the 49ers. But it, too, turned out to be total fiction. First the 49ers GM admitted publicly that Kaepernick only opted out of his contract after the team informed him that they would cut him in training camp months later if he didn’t. Then, the Seattle Seahawks — the only team who even interviewed Kaepernick for a job — confirmed, contrary to unfounded rumors, he hadn’t demanded too much money, and that they didn’t sign him for “football reasons” (it would later be reported that they were concerned about bringing additional personalities into an already fragile locker room).
So, if it wasn’t his style of play, or his salary demands, why did Kaepernick remain unsigned entering the 2017 NFL Season?
With no other explanation, I finally decided to look at the numbers. And it was impossible not to be convinced something was very rotten in the state of the NFL.
Colin Kaepernick played the 2016 season on one of the worst teams in the league, led by a lame-duck coach whose gimmick offense the league had clearly figured out. The players surrounding him were beyond pedestrian: He didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher, his offensive line was one of the worst in all of football, and his best receiver was a guy named Jeremy Kerley who hadn’t had a 600-receiving-yard-season in in half-a-decade. Given that hand to play, Kaepernick still outperformed half the starting quarterbacks in the league: in 10 games he threw 16 touchdowns against 4 interceptions, he ran up more rushing yards than all but one other quarterback, and he posted a QB rating over 90. And, over his last five games? The argument could be made that he was elite — his numbers (10 TD’s, 1 INT, a 64.6 comletion percentage and a 96.9 QB rating) arguably put him in the top-10 of all NFL quarterbacks.
And, significantly, this was an off-year for him. In 3 of the prior 4 season when he was healthy, Kaepernick led the 49ers to the playoffs — twice to the NFC Championship game, and once to the Super Bowl.
Which led me to wonder: In the history of the NFL, how many 29-year-old, playoff-tested, mobile quarterbacks were ever even allowed to even become free agents by their teams — let alone cut, and remain unsigned entering the next NFL season — after putting up numbers that would register in the top half of the league?
One: Colin Kaepernick.
The facts were staring me in the face. I couldn’t ignore them anymore. So when I couldn’t come up with any other justification for him still being unsigned, I felt compelled to go to Facebook.
I announced to my Facebook friends that I was joining Shaun King’s boycott of the NFL until the exclusion of Kaepernick from the league ended.
I patted myself on the back, feeling more than a little self-important. But I also recognized the true size of this sacrifice. MLK and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers gave their lives in the name of social change. Mandela spent three decades in prison to end Apartheid. Gandhi refused to eat for weeks at a time to bring attention to the plight of his people. In the grand scheme of things, what was I really sacrificing in finding something else to do with my time for 3-hours on Sunday until a team finally suffered a serious enough injury to their starting quarterback to sign Kaepernick?
Though my proposed sacrifice was certainly modest in the scope of the global fight for justice, it nonetheless felt significant to me. And the support from friends and family on Facebook was inspiring. Aside from just one debate — which was civil and friendly and good-natured — the feedback I received was of the entirely positive back-patting variety you would expect from a liberal, self-constructed social media bubble in the post-Trump era.
The most impactful words of support came from an old high school friend named Shadeed. Not because of what he said (acknowledging that he was boycotting the NFL as well). But because of our history together.
I was 14 years old when I met Shadeed. He was one of my first friends in high school. I had transferred in from a different school district and didn’t know anyone but the guys I met on my freshman football team. And the deepest early bond I formed was with Shadeed.
Though it is a bit uncomfortable to admit now, part of this initial connection was undeniably related to race. I was a white kid who had developed an early affinity for hip-hop, working multiple paper routes in my idyllic suburban neighborhood to buy Run-DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, and Public Enemy tapes. Growing up in a small, all-white South Jersey town, the only black folks I had ever met were the runners on my father’s track team. Connecting my dad’s black student-athletes with my hip-hop heroes, I idolized them.
Years earlier one of my dad’s star sprinters was Shadeed’s older brother, Scottie. And so, when I met Shadeed on the first day of football practice our freshman year of high school — and my dad mentioned that he was Scottie’s younger brother — I felt an immediate connection.
The remainder of my friendship with Shadeed was built less on cultural admiration and family ties than on common suffering.
Every day, at the conclusion of football practice, our coaches would require us to run a series of “gassers”: timed wind-sprints consisting of two round-trips across the width of a football field. Torturously, and petrifyingly, they were timed. And if every player on the team didn’t complete the set of gassers in the required time, the entire team would have to repeat them.
Shadeed and I shared three things in common: We were big (nearly 200 pounds as 14-year-old freshman); we were slow; and we despised running. So, unless someone was playing through a serious leg injury, the two of us were always the biggest risk to the entire team having to run a second set of gassers.
Thus, from 5:45 to 6 o’clock every afternoon for the first few months of our freshman year, Shadeed and I could be found on the freshman football fields, running side-by-side — dragging our bodies forward with our legs barely lifting off the ground, pleading with our lungs to cooperate, and simply trying to will each other to finish the gassers while our teammates who had finished well ahead of us screamed encouragement (I think) at us.
In those moments, I remember looking over at Shadeed in sheer terror and realizing that we better both find a way to beat the clock, because I’d never forgive him if I had to do this again because he didn’t make it in time. And I know he was thinking the same about me.
Shadeed and I didn’t become best friends over the next four years. We didn’t have many classes together. We didn’t really hang out outside of school. And although we played next to each other on the defensive line, had lockers next to each other in the locker room, and would swap cassette tapes on the bus while traveling to away games, we didn’t spend much time together at all outside of football season.
But whenever we saw each other — in the hallway, or the locker room, or the parking lot — there was real love, and we had a ritual. He would yell out my nickname (“Detto,” broken into two syllables with a strong emphasis on the “to!”), and I would call his (“Deed!”) in a deep, baritone voice. There would be big smiles on our faces, high-fives, and knowing head bobs exchanged, and it was like two old souls reconnecting. Those days of common suffering — and sheer terror — in freshman football had created a real bond between us…one that lasted for all four years of our high school experience.
Yet there is another memory I share with Shadeed. A darker one. One that I suppressed, or discounted, or disassociated from my memory for so long that as I write this I actually catch myself questioning whether it all actually happened, the details foggy like a twilight-sleep dream. And still I know beyond any doubt that it did.
It is our senior year of high school, and I am in the varsity football locker room. A small windowless room built of block walls, it is a perfect square, painted an institutional gray and lined by dark brown steel lockers. The room is lit by harsh florescent tube lights that buzz like a distant beehive, the smells of dried sweat and industrial-strength Lysol forming an unholy mixture in the air.
I am standing at my open locker, talking with a few of my teammates while Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam or some other 90’s rock music plays from small speakers tucked away somewhere under a pile of sweaty tee shirts and football pads. We’re the only ones in the lockerroom, and we’re having the kind of callous conversations that 17-year-old boys have when there are no adults around to monitor their behavior.
I hear the steel door behind me pop and turn around to see who is going to be joining us. It’s Shadeed.
I immediately smile, happy to see him as always, and call out “Deed!” as I get ready to extend my arm for a high five. But something stops me.
As Shadeed gets closer, it’s obvious that something is wrong. His trademark smile is absent. He barely makes eye contact. He is visibly shaken. And shaking.
I ask him what’s going on, what’s wrong. He looks at the ground while mumbling something about getting “pulled over.”
He briefly looks up, making eye contact with me, seemingly seeking reassurance. He’s emotional. His eyes are watery.
It seems like he wants to talk, but doesn’t. Worried for my friend, I start to dig.
“What happened? Is everything okay?” I ask naively. I’m thinking he got in trouble for something — an odd assumption, since he’s one of the last guys on the team who would have done anything to get in trouble for.
He doesn’t offer a verbal answer. It seems like he may not be able to without crying. He just shakes his head back and forth.
Still, I’m not getting it. I stare at him, waiting for clarification of what happened, what’s going on.
“He pulled me over for no reason. And he made me get out of the car.”
It still doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand. Was he speeding? Why would he have to get out of the car?
I’m desperate for answers, I want to understand why my friend’s so upset. But he can’t explain it. And, after an uncomfortably long silence, it finally begins to seep into my sheltered white-kid consciousness, the images of the Jon Singleton movies and Chuck D. lyrics of my youth suddenly feeling all too real in our little piece of suburbia.
The dots connect like an SAT logical reasoning question:
1. Shadeed drives his father’s old Mercedes.
2. Shadeed is black.
3. Shadeed got pulled over for no reason because he was driving a Mercedes while black.
As the realization of what’s happened finally sets in, I feel my face flush and my entire body get hot. I should be livid. I should be jumping up and down about calling someone — telling my dad, who’s a teacher and a coach and a leader at this same high school, multiple former students of his serving on this very police force (one as Deputy Chief).
But I’m not. I’m confused, and uncomfortable, and I don’t know what to say. I want to crawl out of my own skin, or slither out of the room. I don’t understand what’s happening in my own body. And I recoil when I hear one of our other white friends (or is it me?) suggest to Shadeed that maybe there was a good explanation for all of this — maybe it’s not what Shadeed thinks it is. There was probably a mix-up. He didn’t get pulled over just because he’s black.
I look at Shadeed. We briefly make eye contact before he looks at the floor and turns around to his locker. He takes care of his business — whatever it was he’d come into the locker room for — as the rest of us sit in silence, staring at the ground. Not knowing what to say.
“That’s fucked up man” I say quietly, almost under my breath.
He slowly walks out of the room, his head hanging, and shoulders slumped, eyes fixed on the floor.
Fast forward 20 years. Messages are circulating on Facebook about a reunion of our high school class. I’ve been living in Arizona since I graduated from college and, aside from accepting friend invitations on Facebook, had not kept in touch with my buddies from high school.
Shadeed is the only one to reach out to me. He’s living in Atlanta, working for the government and in alumni relations at his college alma matter. He says he’ll travel back to New Jersey if I will, that he’d love to reconnect.
In that moment, I’m touched by a connection I’d not thought about for a long time. I wonder what it is about the bond between us that has endured two decades and two thousand miles. And my mind flashes back to that day in the locker room. I wonder how much of it I remember accurately, how different his memories are. But I know we’ll never speak of it.
Because we never spoke if it again after that day.
In fact, the day Shadeed reached out to me on Facebook about the reunion was the first time I’d thought about that conversation in two decades. And today, 22 years later, is the first time I’ve actually dedicated time to trying to remember the details.
At this point, the passage of time has done its work and I am beginning to doubt my own memories. I wonder how it really happened. And, again, if it happened.
But, deep down, I know. Because it continues to happen every single day in the United States of America.
And so it comes full circle.
Because in exploring that day in the varsity locker room, my own understanding of Colin Kaepernick’s protest — and my very small role in it — comes into focus.
I see that the message underlying Kaepernick’s protest was almost certainly never as simple as raising awareness about Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray and Philando Castile and Sandra Bland and the hundreds of other people of color who are killed by government employees every day.
Nor was it just about Patrisse Culllors and Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi and DeRay McKesson having the right to organize nationally and protest for black lives without being dismissed by the government as extremists.
It now seems to me that Kaepernick’s protest runs much deeper than that, addressing a more subtle (and subversive) issue. One that cuts to the very core of American life. And one whose very existence so many of us are so invested — if only unconsciously — in denying.
It seems that, although I may not have been able to see it at the time, Kaepernick’s message has always been about more than just black lives. It was about white lives, and the subtle ways in which racism creeps into them without us even realizing it. The way this invisible racism results in the construction of implicit biases that hide in the shadows of our collective psyche. And the way the systems we create and participate in cannot help but be influenced by these biases — precisely because they go unacknowledged and unexamined.
And so I see, very clearly, the absolute necessity not only of Kaepernick’s message — but the means of his delivery. Collectively, white America has a mass aversion to understanding problems through racial lenses. Just like me and my white friends in the locker room that day questioning Shadeed’s own experience, we doubt what we hear is true and look for other explanations.
And so Kaepernick’s protest truly seems to be about communicating the only way he can to a group of people traditionally more interested in providing alternative explanations for bigoted behavior than actually listening.
The unfortunate reality is that sometimes our sleep is so deep that we cannot be awakened by a soft voice. Sometimes we need alarm bells.
We don’t always get to choose how those alarm bells sound. And, in this case, the sound has been rattling: A biracial millionaire athlete using the only platform he has — a few minutes before he prepares to go out and do his job on national television on a Sunday afternoon — to attempt to create that necessary disruption of our ordinary routine.
And my relationship with Shadeed is evidence of the lasting impact of that disruption: The denial me and my white teammates faced when he shared his tramatic experience with us; my total disconnection from it for years; and the fact that, two decades later, I’m sitting at a keyboard banging away and trying to make sense of what exactly happened that day in the locker room…after really examining it for the first time.
When thinking about Shadeed, I am struck by a realization: the enormous privilege of my selective amnesia.
I am quite certain that there are no details of that day that he can’t remember.
As the Super Bowl nears, I am beginning to feel the time-crunch in needing to publish this piece. I can feel the relevancy of my musings fading as the game inches closer. And with the pressure mounting, I feel compelled to move quickly — as if my decision to boycott this NFL season will mean nothing if I cannot share what I have learned from doing so.
But I also feel compelled to connect with my old friend before I can move forward. I have to confirm that I haven’t manufactured this story in my head. And I must know that I have his blessing to tell this story.
After reaching out to him on Facebook and forwarding him my draft of this article, Shadeed sends me his Atlanta number and invites me to call. When I finally do so, I have no idea what to expect. He would have every right to be angry at my out-of-the-blue request that he read my description of what I can only assume must have been one of the most traumatic moments of his life.
I dial his number, waiting for his answer and half-hoping it goes to voicemail. “Steve Benedetto!” he answers with genuine joy in his voice. And instantly I’m transported back 20 years, talking to my buddy.
We have a great conversation. We talk about work, and family, and life at age 40. We talk about how hard it’s going to be for both of us to skip the Super Bowl on Sunday, and why it’s also necessary. And after about 15 minutes of catching up, we get around to that day in the locker room.
Shadeed confirms my memory: That day was real. It happened. And it unfolded more-or-less as I recalled it.
He also confirms what I no doubt would have realized on my own had I not been so caught up in my own head: that the monumental importance I had ascribed to this particular experience wasn’t entirely mirrored by him. Yes, this was significant. And yes, this was my first encounter with institutionalized racism. But it certainly wasn’t his.
Because Shadeed wasn’t only black in America on that one day.
He’s been black in America every day of his entire life.
Which means traffic stops, from the time he was a mere child in the backseat of his father’s car to the present day (including the very day of our 20th Reunion itself, when he was profiled and stopped in his rental car just miles from where we grew up).
It also means discrimination and dismissals and feelings of being treated as “less than” that extended far beyond the roadside and traffic stops, into classrooms and workplaces and sports fields in ways that I was completely ignorant of.
And it means the exhaustion and confusion of attempting to connect and relate to a society in which people of color are never fully accepted or integrated.
Yet there is not a hint of bitterness in my old friend’s voice as he talks patiently about his experience. No anger or resentment or frustration. Just optimism and hope and staunch resolve to continue to move forward and make this country better for his children.
And it is in this conversation that I see the real power in Colin Kaepernick’s sacrifice, and the dialogue that he has inspired (and, in some cases, forced). Long overdue conversations are happening, and we’re finally starting to talk about the things that we’ve buried for too long.
It is Thursday morning. Three days before Super Bowl Sunday. I cannot engage in any of my standard mindless internet browsing without running headlong into Super Bowl coverage. Philly.com, ESPN.com, even CNN and the Huffington Post are all ripe with it. Yet I still mindlessly navigate to those sites out of habit. And, once there, I can’t leave fast enough to avoid the headlines and photos.
There’s Tom Brady looking oddly thin and sickly. There’s Nick Foles still looking like Napoleon Dynamite. There’s Fletcher Cox wearing a lucha libre mask for some reason. The Patriots are talking about how to make Bill Belichick smile. Doug Pederson is bringing Brett Favre in to talk to the Eagles. Roger Goddell is dodging questions about Colin Kaepernick.
The Super Bowl circus is in full swing.
I flee the coverage, and feel like I must come up with a specific plan for Sunday — to get deep into the mountains where there is no television or cell phone service, to try to stay busy, to do everything I can to keep myself occupied to avoid being tempted to flip on the TV and watch something I’ve been waiting for my entire life: a possible Eagles Super Bowl victory. I’m making decisions as if I’m an addict in the early stages of recovery, just released from treatment, feeling completely powerless over my own decision-making faculties.
And that’s when the absurdity of all of this occurs to me. Because this is all a choice.
I have the choice to boycott the game in order to support Colin Kaepernick for the sacrifice he’s made to bring attention to issues that have been hidden in the shadows for far too long.
Or I can make the opposite choice: to support the NFL owners (who decided to mute Kaepernick’s message by keeping him unemployed this year) by watching the game.
I get to make the choice about who to support: the people who show the courage to acknowledge injustice and attempt to change it, even if it may come at great personal cost…or the powerful interests who are threatened by that change and seek to destroy those who shine light in our society’s dark corners.
There are number of things that make this choice difficult. There’s my cousin Brian, the only Philly sports fan whose knowledge and passion I’ve ever felt clearly surpasses my own, and who I’m certain is absolutely in his element with the Eagles in the Super Bowl. My buddy Matt, a long-frustrated Bills fan who I corrupted and enlisted as a surrogate Eagles fan, texting with him continuously during every game over the last 15 years. There’s the deep feeling of a need for a corrective experience from the 2005 Super Bowl, where I watched Tom Brady and Bill Belichick steal the Eagles’ last chance at a championship by cheating. And most of all, there’s my dad — who prepared for the 1980 World Series by dressing his 3-year-old son up in Phillies gear and cranking up Harry Kalas on the radio; who carried me on his shoulders on countless fireworks nights at the Vet; who, after watching Joe Carter break our hearts late one night in October of 1993, apologized to me for signing me up for a life of misery by raising me as a Philly sports fan…and with whom I’ve been waiting to celebrate an Eagles championship for my entire life.
So, the choice may be complicated. It may not come as easily as I would like. But it is still a choice.
It’s one I get to make, without influence or interference from anyone else. And, on Sunday morning, I will be choosing to maintain my boycott of the NFL.
Just as Colin Kaepernick chose whether he was going to kneel in the first place.
Only, unlike Colin, it won’t cost me millions of dollars. It won’t result in death-threats. And I likely won’t bear any other real ramifications of my choice.
Because I had the good fortune to be born white in America.