STATE COLLEGE – There are numerous times when sports intersects with social issues. These instances seem to occur following a powder-keg explosion of racial or political differences.
On Saturday, Penn State defensive tackle Aeneas Hawkins shared on Twitter a harrowing, threatening encounter he experienced. His provocation? Simply being black.
Hawkins recounted the ordeal in a six-part tweet.
“I’m posting a thread to share a hostile experience I had about 30 minutes ago,” Hawkins wrote. “I’m on a road trip back home, and stopped for gas about 3 hours away. As I’m coming out of the store after paying for my gas, I made eye contact with a white man who’s about 30 years old.
“He stared longer than I thought was normal, but I thought nothing of it. I’m a larger man in all Penn State gear, so maybe he knew I played ball. As I walked, though, he yelled “F*** you! You black son of a b****.”
Hawkins shared that while he pumped his gas, the instigator maneuvered his vehicle near him and stared. He said he could hear “some sort of hate speech blasting when he pulled up.”
Hawkins wrote that he remained calm but was prepared to defend himself should the situation turn physical when the man entered his personal space.
“When he stood close to me, I know that I’ll always be guilty before proven innocent. Although I had done nothing out of the ordinary to invite conflict, it found me just for (living while black).”
He ended the series of tweets with a caution: “I’m posting this to remind my brothers and sisters of color to stay aware of their surroundings and to be safe. Although that man is not representative of this entire country, the anger and hate he has in his heart represents enough for my people 2 be extra cautious at all times.”
Hawkins grew up in Cincinnati, and is the son of Johnstown native Artrell Hawkins Jr., who played football at the University of Cincinnati and in the NFL with the Bengals, Panthers and Patriots. Aeneas’ grandfather, Artrell Hawkins Sr., played at Pitt and was a free-agent with the Steelers.
Penn State safety Lamont Wade has long used his visibility as a student-athlete to highlight social issues. He counts controversial former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick – who knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans – among his inspirations.
“I definitely admire him for that, for how brave he was to just do something that’s way above himself for his community to raise awareness and shed light on it,” Wade said.
Wade commended Hawkins’ response and handling of the situation. Wade said the moment speaks to Hawkins’ character, and the reaction was in line with attitudes coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions staff attempt to instill in their players.
“How the program is run, it’s not just football,” Wade said. “Coach Franklin always emphasizes handling ourselves the right way whether it’s in public, wherever it is, just knowing when we do something, it’s for us first – it’s for our last name – then Penn State University, also. We always have to take that into consideration.”
After Hawkins’ revelation on social media, his teammates, hometown friends from Ohio and members of Penn State’s fan base showered him with encouragement.
It seemed all too familiar. Just last October, the same rally cry was offered after Penn State safety Jonathan Sutherland received a racially charged letter from a Penn State fan who chastised Sutherland for his dreadlocks. The letter-writer shared his disapproval of tattoos and hearkened back to a time when dress codes and appearances were different.
It’s understandable as to why college sports programs attempt to insulate their players from the noise and distractions on the outside. Sadly, as seen with the situations faced by Hawkins and Sutherland, and others, the vitriol can still find a way to seep in, despite the fortresses.
“The football that I know and love brings people together, and embraces differences,” Penn State coach James Franklin said last fall as he addressed the Sutherland incident. “Black, white, brown, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim, rich or poor, rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, long hair, short hair, no hair.
“They are all in that locker room together. Teams all over this country are the purest form of humanity that we have. We don’t judge. We embrace differences. We live, we learn, we grow, we support and we defend each other. We’re a family.”
Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth roomed with Hawkins last year. While their skin tones don’t match, the two share a brotherhood forged through Penn State blue and white. Freiermuth said he reached out to Hawkins following the incident.
“It kind of hit home,” Freiermuth said. “It kind of made it real to me that it’s not just on social media. This just happened to one of my teammates. I’m there for him. I’m there for all my teammates. I just have to be supportive and just kind of stand up for him.”
Hawkins’ experience was shared during the time frame in which a series of racially charged incidents hit the national media.
On Monday, a white woman called the New York Police Department on an African American man who asked that she leash her dog while at Central Park.
Four police officers in Minnesota were fired Tuesday after a video surfaced of an incident that resulted in the death of a black man in custody. One of the officers knelt on the man’s neck, depriving him of air, as he was incapacitated on the asphalt.
I’d be lying if I told Hawkins he wouldn’t have to worry about going through the experience again. As long as society exists, it will give birth to people who will harbor contempt in their hearts until the day they leave this earth.
What I can tell Hawkins is while we can’t control the actions of others, we most certainly can control our own.
I can tell him it took great bravery – great strength – to refrain from engaging his provoker.
“The type of guy Aeneas is, that’s what he did,” Wade said. “He showed courage by doing that.”