Evin Demirel: It Appears Jonathan Williams Made History


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It appears on November 28th Razorback running Jonathan Williams became the first Division I student-athlete in a major team sport to protest a grand jury decision not to indict police in the death of Michael Brown, of Ferguson, Mo., or a similar early December decision involving New York City’s Eric Garner. In the Hogs’ regular season finale at Missouri, Williams caught a 23-yard touchdown pass and after entering the end zone briefly put both hands in the air. This “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture has become a rallying cry against excessive force versus unarmed African Americans by police.

According to one former Hog who stays in touch with many of the current football players, many other Razorbacks share Williams’ empathy with the family of Michael Brown and concern about the larger issue of (unwarranted) police brutality. Williams was the only one to publicly display it, though, and as a result received some heat on social media. Here’s an example:

Jonathan Williams

Since then, Williams has been largely silent on the issue in public. Bret Bielema asked him to temporarily refrain from comment, according to a December 4 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “I think the big thing with our program, we’re not looking for individuals, we’re looking for team members,” Bielema then said. He later added, “When you’re on the football field and you do anything more than celebrate with your teammates, it’s never a good thing.” On December 3, Williams ReTweeted the last words spoken by Eric Garner, a Staten Island black male whose strangulation death at the hands of police have set off mass protests. The Tweeted excerpt included “Please don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

In the last couple weeks, these words have become ubiquitous as many professional football and basketball players – including Reggie Bush, DeSean Jackson, LeBron James and Derrick Rose – have worn them on their shirts or shoes as a sign of empathy for Garner’s family while pushing the issue of police brutality into the national limelight.

While these issues, and the stances athletes take on them, have become a growing national story they been largely taken out of the realm of public discourse in Arkansan sports circles.

Recently, Williams expressed regret in making his gesture, potentially making him the only professional or collegian athlete to backtrack on a Michael Brown/Eric Garner-related statement so far.  “I didn’t expect – I wasn’t expecting it to get blown up or anything like that,” Williams said of his “hands up, don’t shoot” pose in Friday’s Democrat-Gazette. “I feel like it kind of got out of hand.” Bielema said Williams expressed regret over making the gesture after Bielema discussed how it took attention away from the unit as a whole.

“I’m a team guy,” Williams said. “You know, I think about the team first and foremost, so next time I’m just going to hand the ball to the ref and celebrate with my teammates.”

Williams hasn’t gone into detail about what he exactly meant by the gesture. Nationwide, many people have criticized the gesture he used as inaccurate, citing witnesses who have said Michael Brown did not actually raise his hands in a defenseless pose when a policeman shot him. The gesture, of course, was triggered by the circumstances surrounding a death in a St. Louis suburb but it ultimately isn’t about who did what, when and where in any one specific incident. On a higher level, it represents a way to give voice to concerns and fears that have frustrated millions of African Americans for centuries.

Dave Zirin, the nation’s foremost authority on the intersection of sports and politics, explains the gesture’s significance by first pointing out many African American parents at some in their children’s lives sit them down for “the talk.” They tell them ways to handle themselves when interacting with police to diminish the likelihood of violence. Some of “these guys are gonna be on a trigger, you better be calm, here’s how you handle yourself,” Zirin said in his December 4 podcast. “The ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ gesture is way of saying ‘You can do the talk. You still might die. Your hands could be up. You still might die.’”

So far, it appears there are only two other Division I student-athletes playing major sports who have used the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in uniform.  Dwayne Benjamin and Jordan Bell, both University of Oregon basketball players, raised their hands through an entire national anthem before a December 7 game.

Their coach Dana Altman, who had a 24-hour cup of tea as the Razorbacks’ head basketball coach once upon a time, didn’t approve. “I think every player has a right to express their opinion, however I didn’t think that was the time and place for it,” Altman told Oregonlive.com. “On their own as individuals, they have that right. As part of our basketball team, when you put the Oregon jersey on, it’s a little different. So, I think there’s a time and place for everything. I don’t think that was the appropriate time.”

Protesting professional football and basketball players also wear jerseys representing a team. They also play in publicly financed stadia and arenas. Yet their coaches are far more likely to approve of players speaking their minds. Take the NBA’s Lionel Hollins, head coach of former Razorback star Joe Johnson, for instance. Hollins was asked what he thought about a few of his Brooklyn Nets donning “I can’t breathe”  warm up T-shirts before a Monday night game with Cleveland. The players “should be political. They should be about social awareness,”  Hollins said. “Basketball is just a small part of life. If they don’t think that there is justice or they feel like there is something that they should protest, then they should. That is their right as citizens of America, and I have no problem with it at all.”

It’s unclear why this logic doesn’t also apply to college student-athletes. If pro coaches conceive of their players’ sport as a “small part of life,” then why should college coaches think differently?  And isn’t a 20-year-old every bit of an American citizen as a 25-year-old?

Two weeks ago, a Razorback chose to leverage his celebrity for a cause he believed in and showed willingness to endure the inevitable criticism that came from it. He chose to be an “uncommon man,” a phrase the Arkansas football program itself pushes on the recruiting trail. Since that act, though, Jonathan Williams has publicly backed down from his stance.

Don’t expect the same from the only other Division I football player known to have made a statement relating to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. On December 3, Maryland wide receiver Deon Long joined a mass of fellow students protesting the recent decision not to indict a police officer on charges relating to Garner’s death. Long was highly visible – on campus, in front of the school’s arena before a game against Virginia. His message was unequivocable:

With a single piece of cardboard, Long had flipped himself from being someone who so excellently goes about the games that distract us – a uniform merely to be watched and measured – into someone staring right back through the screen. And he dared us to care about things we might not have wanted to see in this corner of the news:

“Are we still ‘thugs’ when you pay to watch us play sports?”

As Dave Zirin put it, “I don’t know what’s more searing – that question, or what the answer might be.


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