During a Monday night appearance on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, New England Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson ended up stopping host Laura Ingraham dead in her tracks with his full-throated agreement with Jemele Hill’s call for elite black athletes to stop attending majority-white colleges—a moment that quickly went viral on social media.
After spending the beginning portion of the interview defending New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees’ involvement with right-wing Christian organization Focus on the Family, Watson was asked by Ingraham at the end of the segment to react to Hill’s article—an article that had sparked intense backlash from conservatives.
The NFL veteran, however, applauded Hill’s piece and listed off the reasons he agreed with it, much to Ingraham’s chagrin.
In a phone conversation with The Daily Beast on Tuesday afternoon, Watson—who is working on a documentary titled Before the Fall, due out next spring—discussed his thoughts on the interview and the positive reaction to his words. He also went into more detail about the issues Hill touched on, such as the racial wealth gap.
Your exchange with Laura Ingraham blew up overnight. Do you think she expected you to agree with her opinion on Jemele Hill’s article?
“I’m not sure. I’m not sure what she expected. You know, I’ve been on her show before a couple of times and sometimes I agree with her and sometimes I don’t. So, I think she knows that I have a dissenting view from the usual line of her show as well as some of the other personalities on Fox. But I appreciated the opportunity to go on and give a different perspective than what any of her viewers were hearing over and over about that article.”
I’m assuming you were taken by surprise by the reaction your interview received on social media. Do you think it has to do more with Ingraham’s response or your more nuanced and intelligent take on the racial wealth gap?
“I think it’s a combination of things. I mean, it’s no secret that Fox News—their viewership usually believes a certain thing about that article. That article came out and you had a lot of people talking about how ridiculous it was, how racist it was, how segregationist—the list goes on and on.
“So, you know, for many people that’s what they expect from that network—you turn on, you see guests, you expect the guests, many times, agree with the hosts. So that kind of leaned back in the face of that narrative, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing when you’re a news organization to have people on that disagree but also it’s important to have those conversations in an intelligent way—and in a way that’s not insulting or belittling but just in a different way because it’s important for the viewers to think critically. And they’re not able to think critically when you know exactly what the host is thinking and you know exactly what all the guests are going to think and they’re just going to reaffirm. Whatever thoughts you might have, you’re not challenged.
“So I think the reaction was a combination of, here I’m somebody who played sports in college, I was a black athlete at two—I went to Duke University and then University of Georgia—predominantly white institutions. And so, I think that my viewpoint, and all of what [Hill] said, was nuanced because I lived it and I thought about those very things. It also just goes to show that there may not have been much opportunity for others to come on and give that dissenting view.”
Do you want to expound more on the issue you discussed on the air, since you only had about 90 seconds?
“Yeah [laughs], it’s always tough on TV. It was the end of a block, so it’s always tough. You know, TV is in soundbites anyway, so it’s hard—that’s another thing. TV is soundbites. It’s very easy to just give a sound bite and let that be it but a lot of these issues are really too complex to discuss in that format. It doesn’t mean you don’t try to do it but sometimes it’s hard to have a really solid, complex argument about such a complex issue if you’re only limited to that short amount of time.
“So when I read Jemele’s article, first of all the headline draws you in and I understand how everyone has an automatic response to that headline. Either you’re for or against it, and it makes sense. And I think that’s what she may have wanted. Drop a headline that people look at. But it’s important to take the time to read it and then see if you agree.
“I spoke to a gentleman today, a white gentleman, and he saw the clip and he—also when he first saw the article, he thought that it was kind of maybe racist. Or he used terms, that maybe—why was she saying this? This is kind of going against what we are trying to do in this country as far as unifying, that sort of thing. And then he listened to me talk and he actually went and read the article and he said, ‘I understand where she’s coming from and the reasons why she’s saying that.’
“So, being an athlete at so many institutions and understanding that I look around and don’t see many people who look like me in the stands or on campus but also understand that we, as athletes, is a multi-billion dollar industry. And I would wonder about some of these things while I was in college. And then studying a little bit more about HBCUs, realizing all the great politicians or athletes or judges and lawyers who have come from some of these organizations—they’re important to American culture. And they’re suffering now.
“I think simply what Jemele was doing was saying ‘Look, we sit here in 2019 and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in ‘64 and the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s...and we sit here and our neighborhoods have just as much residential segregation as before, if not more.’ The racial wealth gap is 10-to-1. And that inherited wealth that our counterparts have is because of systematic government-imposed legislation that’s happened over the course of the last 10, 15, 20 years that’s prevented many of that going to things like the GI Bill and talking about how wealth will build through home ownership that will deny to black applicants through redline. The list goes on and on.
“And all of us, collectively—white, blacks, all of us as Americans—should want to correct many historical and prejudicial injustices and find ways to do that. And so reading the article, I looked at it from that perspective of, look, maybe this is a way to talk about revenue building, the power of sports—which I am involved in—what if these things happened? How could it positively affect these universities and the communities that they represent? It’s not an issue of not wanting to be at the predominantly or historically white institutions. Those institutions are great as well. And people should have freedom to go wherever they want to go. That’s the beauty of where we are now. The reality is that these schools are still very segregated. I mean, some of these schools have seven percent or less that 10 percent minorities and half of those are athletes. For various reasons, this is the case. And also when you look at HBCUs, it’s not like it’s only black students, there are students that are Caucasian there as well. And I just saw this as a pretty nuanced idea of ways to generate dollars—you can’t make anyone go to a particular school—it makes sense why athletes want to go to these bigger, more powerful universities. I mean, I did the same thing.
“But it really was a theory—a kind of hypothetical—about what if this happened, what could be the outcome. For it to happen, it would take come decisions by a group of athletes. She mentioned the Fab Five. It would take something like that, of course. That may or may not happen. But I think when we look at the broader issues, when we look at certain inequities, how can we do things that balanced these things out and kind of make—value these institutions but also value these communities they represent.”
You touched on a number of things there, which you also did a bit in the interview. But hitting on how people seeing Hill’s headline might see it as provocative and think that it’s racist: what she’s really hitting on is that most of these well-endowed universities have very few black students as opposed to the actual athletes that are there to play. And utilizing the money that they’re bringing in, the HBCUs are suffering. Meanwhile, many black congressmen and judges and CEOs still tend to come from HBCUs.
“Yeah, exactly, So I think that there is value there and we should honor that. And those colleges have much to offer. It doesn’t mean that every black person has to go to one. And it doesn’t mean that every white person can’t go to one. Clearly. But I think it’s really a value statement on an athlete’s agency, really, about the power athletes have. But also the importance of these institutions.
“My father played football at the University of Maryland. And he shared with me that when he had an opportunity to be recruited by a Wake Forest or a Duke University or Maryland, it was really unheard of and a really great opportunity because a few years before that he couldn’t even go to these schools!
“And so, I think that when desegregation came in and integrated came in—what some of those laws stopped—it was vitally important for black, not just athletes, but students to be able to enter these schools sit beside their white counterparts that they’d been segregated from. To hear things that they heard. To understand culturally the differences and get to know one another. Those things are vitally important.
“But if you look at the history of HBCUs, they started to suffer because, as you mentioned, many of these schools are already well-endowed and already had money. And then, one of the things that Jemele pointed out was some of these southern universities, when it came time to play sports and they were segregated they realized they were at a disadvantage and had a smaller pool of athletes. So they started accepting.
“But I think we haven’t really gotten past that point where we have many more students outside of these athletes—some schools are different, this isn’t like a generalization—there’s a point where I think some of these schools have closed. And I think what she was getting at was how do we strengthen some of these schools and also strengthen those communities because there’s value there and they are needed part of the education system.”
You’ve certainly expounded on a lot of the issues that Hill hit on in a little bit more time than you had yesterday.
“If I can say one more thing, one of the good things about being able to talk about it in that way, in that forum, is that I feel like it challenged the listener with a different point of view. In a way that is not combative but really I think that we all need to be challenged on a lot of things that we think. Because if we only hear and we reinforce what we think to be true, sometimes we fail to grow. And sometimes we’re not as strong in our own points of view.
“Somebody could have disagreed with me that’s on if they have reasons to do so. Or if there was somebody who was watching that was expecting a different response or maybe a reinforcement of something that had already been said about [Hill] and her article the last several days, that realized I really do believe what these people were telling me—the other guests—or people who paid that challenge who said ‘You know what, let’s see what happens.’ Kind of like that guy I ran into today.
“I think that that’s a good thing. I think that in journalism, and in news, we do the public a disservice when we don’t try to combine a variety of different views. In a respectful manner, of course.”
I think what got the segment so much attention was not just that Ingraham seemed surprised by your answer but that, maybe, like you said before, you challenged the listener and the viewer. Like you said, the Fox viewer likely already had their mind made up about Hill’s article, but you said, “I actually read the article and I agree with what she was saying because of X, Y and Z.”
“Exactly, exactly. Sometimes we are—and I include myself in this—sometimes we are all lazy and we don’t want to dig into things that make us uncomfortable or they challenge our ideals. And it’s important that we do that if we want to get the truth.”
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.