ATHENS – Benjamin Watson – better known as Ben in these parts – insists that he didn’t ask for any of this. He never planned to become a national spokesman on race relations in America. But, like it or not, he is.
That phenomenon was on full display Thursday night in the Grand Ballroom at UGA’s Tate Student Center. Watson was the featured speaker for an event called “Indiv/sible,” a public forum organized by UGA’s Wesley Foundation to frankly discuss racial issues and seek ways to reduce the cultural divide.
As the full-to-brimming ballroom indicated, Watson commands a lot of attention on this front. Well, the former Georgia football star still plays ball in the NFL. But he has written a book about racial relations in America – Under My Skin: Getting Real About Race – and has made numerous appearances on national television to discuss his views.
And apparently folks are listening. A crowd estimated at about 750 people – black, white, students and local citizens – showed up to hear from Watson and participate in a panel discussion with other local authorities on race relations. The turnout was a pleasant surprise for Watson.
“I wasn’t sure at all,” Watson said after the presentation, which lasted more than two hours. “I saw all the chairs and didn’t know if they’d all be filled up. But I think everybody showed up plus some. (Wesley Foundation director) Bob Beckwith was instrumental in putting this together and it was good. The questions were good, people were engaged, and it really gave people an opportunity to be honest and ask some pointed questions.”
This was no small undertaking for Watson. His day began extremely early Thursday as he had to be at the Baltimore Ravens’ football complex to continue the rehabilitation of his Achilles tendon issue. After that, he rushed to the airport and caught a flight to Atlanta.
“It was 30 degrees when I left Baltimore this morning,” he told the crowd. “Then I had to get through the airports and all that Atlanta traffic. Man, that Atlanta traffic is still awful. I thought 316 was supposed to have more lanes by now. But as soon as I saw the sign for the University of Georgia, I got goosebumps. Once a Dog, always a Dog.”
Accompanied on the stage by Georgia football team chaplain Thomas Settles, Watson answered questions about his upbringing in Norfolk, Va., and Rock Hill, S.C., before arriving at UGA as a transfer from Duke University in 2001. Since starring for the Bulldogs on two SEC East champion teams – including the school’s first overall conference championship in 20 years – Watson has played 14 years in the NFL with four different teams. He won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, who drafted him, before joining the Ravens this past year. He tore his Achilles in preseason camp and sat out all last season. But he said he is on track to make it back for preseason camp this year.
On the stage, Watson was engaging, energetic and, well, hilarious. He joked about first meeting his wife at UGA while “cruising the yard” and spotting her wearing some “unforgettable red pants.”
Watson was able to inject that humor into the discussion on racial relations. “Obviously I’ve been black for 36 years, so I’ve seen things from only one perspective,” he said to the laughter of the crowd.
But the most poignant moments came when Watson shared his personal experiences with what he called “inadvertent racism.” He spoke of attending a predominantly white elementary school and being best friends with a white boy who, like him, was athletic and very sports-oriented.
One day they were just hanging out at school and checking out all the pretty girls in the class. And both of them, like all the other boys, were focused on a young lady named “Katie,” an alias Watson has given her.
“She was cute, she played soccer, had dirty blond hair, freckles. She was beautiful,” Watson said.
His friend turned to Watson and said: “Katie would love you if you were white.”
It was like a gut-punch for Watson.
“That was the first time it ever occurred to me that I was good, but not good enough,” Watson said.
Such instances of unintentional racism ended up being a major focus during the subsequent exchange with the audience. They actually have a term for it now. They call them “micro-aggressions.”
A black student on the panel named Hannah Mason told of often being asked on campus, “are you an athlete?”
“No,” she tells them. “I’m just here because I’m smart.”
Also included on the panel with Watson and Mason were Athens-Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards, NAACP student representative Mansur Buffins, Wesley Foundation associate director Daniel Simmons and UGA vice president for student affairs Victor Wilson.
“It was good for the panelists to be able to honestly express some of their frustrations when it comes to race,” Watson said afterward. “You heard some hurt, you heard some frustration, you heard some anger. Some people here may have heard some things they’ve never heard before.”
And this is the impetus of Watson’s movement, to get blacks and whites to talk openly about how they feel and recognizing that neither side is acting appropriately when they’re not employing the Christian principles of forgiveness and understanding.
“There are inferiority complexes sometimes and superiority complexes sometimes, and neither one is correct,” Watson said.
That Watson is in this unique position blows his mind. It all started with a Facebook post in response to the Ferguson Riots of 2014. You can still read it today on a Facebook page dedicated to his book.
That viral post has set Watson on a path he never really intended to be on. An articulate speaker and dynamic motivator, the married father of five children is inundated with questions about whether he intends to run for public office or what other platforms there might be for him to further his cause.
For now, he just wants to keep playing football.
“I’m still trying to rehab this Achilles and play another year of football; I want to finish,” said Watson, who has caught 434 passes for 4,963 yards and 38 touchdowns in his NFL career. “Whatever length of time is meant for me to play, I want to finish it. And then the doors will open. God has already started opening doors for me. I just want to be faithful and walk through them encouraged.
“I don’t love being on stage; that’s not who I am. But He continues to open these doors for me and allowing me to do it, so I’m trying to be faithful to it. Me and my family just trust when football is over, the right thing will open up. So y’all be praying for it.”
Many people are, you can be assured.