Momma’s Boy

Facing Social Justice in Sports

Jessie Bates III’s story as told to Mitchell Carter

The car had hit a snowbank and stopped in its tracks. A half mile away from the site of the shooting, Anderson Retic and Joshua Cole Cooper laid slumped in their seats, dead; Jaylin Rice was in critical condition.

These three young Black men were gunned down after an argument with Joseph Bossard, a white man inside of a gas station in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Empty bullet casings littered the gas station parking lot, and blood spattered the inside of the car that the boys were driving to escape. I don’t live in Fort Wayne anymore, but my mom does, and so do my siblings and many of my close friends.

That shooting broke my heart; those young Black men could have easily been my friends and me. I believe that it was a hate crime, and that’s not the Fort Wayne that I know.

Before I was a standout safety for the Wake Forest Demon Deacon football team, or an All-Pro safety for the Cincinnati Bengals, it was just me, my mom, and my siblings trying to get by in my hometown of Fort Wayne. While I had no father figure in the home growing up, I had mentors and people close to me who were responsible for leading me on the right path. Not just in the football sense but in life too.

Football is a game of inches. It’s violent, but it’s also strategic. Football, basketball, and baseball were all the sports that my mom put me into when I was a kid. I made a lot of friends and found that I excelled at all of those sports, but it was pretty apparent that football was where I had the best chance for a future. I was a young man growing up in a single-parent household, and the opportunity to continue my football career in college with a scholarship was one that I couldn’t wait to pursue. I wasn’t aware of just how many doors would be opened for me through football, and for that, I owe football a lot.

However, I don’t think it would have all been possible if I hadn’t also played basketball and baseball. Those two sports allowed me to train in other ways, honing other skills that are important in football but not necessarily as focused on. Not only that, but I also got to compete in some capacity all year, and I think that constant competitiveness in my life allowed me to stay hungry, always working toward my next goal.

Bowling, on the other hand, isn’t quite as violent as football, but secretly, I’ve grown to love it too. One of my close friends growing up, Trevor Wilson, better known as Trimmer Trev, is not only my barber but also a pretty proficient bowler. For my birthday, he got me my first pair of bowling shoes. I ended up buying my own ball not long after, and he won’t admit it, but sometimes I’ll beat him. If you’re going to be good at one sport, might as well be good at them all.

Social justice isn’t as cut and dried as football or bowling. You can’t watch tape and scout social justice, and you don’t need to get your ankles taped up before you take on social justice. Things that have been making headlines in our country — police brutality, racism, equality issues — those have been going on for years and years. It’s just now coming up on a lot of people’s radars, though, and while there is change being made, and I think that’s great, I feel that everything that has happened boils down to human rights.

Speaking on what just happened in Fort Wayne. Those three boys were gunned down in their hometown, and I really do believe that if they were white, we wouldn’t have seen them on the news; besides an argument, nothing would have happened. I believe those young men were gunned down by a white man because they were Black. It’s a hate crime, simple as that. If we can’t eliminate things like that in our society, how much progress are we really making?

When it comes to speaking out on social justice, there are so many things that are important to me. I know that I’m not alone in my thoughts about racial injustice, police brutality, and human rights, but I’ll be the first to admit that I probably haven’t been as outspoken as I would have liked to be.

I feel like this generation is all about the hype, and it’s cool to get behind what issues are hot in the moment. I think it’s more important to be educated on a subject before speaking on it. First, educate yourself and then educate your family and friends. That’s where you’re really going to be making a difference. A lot of my focus has gone toward educating myself and my family and less toward speaking out publicly about issues, but I’m looking to change that as I grow and mature as a person and an athlete.

When I was in high school, I was a part of AWP, Athletes With Purpose. Their mission was to develop not only the body of young athletes but also the mind. We worked hard, competing day in and day out in drills, workouts, and sometimes 7-on-7 competitions. At the same time, though, all who were a part of AWP were taught lessons about how to be better men and not just better athletes.

I strive to be just that — an athlete with purpose.

I think we have a major problem as a society where we ostracize athletes who utilize their platforms to speak up on issues that are important to them. How can you tell somebody who’s a person just like you are to just “shut up and dribble?” We hurt too; we have opinions and fears just like the rest of you. That’s where I feel like AWP really helped me grow not only as a person but also as a player. You can’t fix everything that’s wrong with the world, but if you have the courage and passion to stand up and speak on an issue that’s important to you, you can at least make a start.

Growing up without a father figure in the home, I sought the help and guidance of Michael V. Ledo, the CEO of AWP and now the CEO of RISE Sports Advisors. He was always pushing me. He saw the potential in me, but he also constantly reminded me that all of the potential in the world means nothing if you don’t continue to apply yourself every single day, especially when it comes to educating yourself.

He was always in touch with me throughout college, and he’s still educating me to this day. He’s an integral part of my management team now in the NFL, and he along with some others are the ones who ensure that I have both a financial and physical plan for myself on and off of the field.

One of the big problems about growing up with only your mom in the home is just the lack of education about things that fathers talk about with their sons.

I don’t think that there’s enough we can do to push education with the younger generation, especially those kids who are growing up just like I did. I’ve been in the National Football League a few years now, and I decided that the best way to utilize my resources and my drive to give back to the community was to start the JB3 Single Mother’s Initiative as well as creating some JB3 Summits in my home town of Fort Wayne.

Through my Single Mother’s Initiative, I’ve gotten to partner with the Boys and Girls Club in Cincinnati and bring some kids and their mothers to a Bengals game followed by dinner with me. It’d be really easy for me to just throw some money at a program or charity and call it good, but I think there’s merit in letting the kids see your face, talk with you, and have an experience that they’ll never forget. Sitting down with those kids and their moms, seeing them all smile, laugh, and enjoy themselves is why I do it. I want those kids to see somebody who grew up not so different from them and made it. I’m not exactly sure where it’ll go from here, but I love where it’s headed.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, we didn’t get to have the JB3 Summit this year, but the plan was to partner with the Forty Wayne community schools and have a bunch of guest speakers come in with me and just talk to the kids. There were so many things that I had no idea about growing up: stocks and bonds, personal finance, and even sex. It’s so important to me to give these kids the opportunity to be educated on subjects at a young age that I wasn’t able to learn until I was older — some of it not until I was out of college.

I won’t pretend to act like I’m a father figure to these kids, but maybe I can offer some lessons that a father should.

The same thing applies to the JB3 Summits as does my Single Mother’s Initiative: There’s power in these kids getting to see me and interact with me. I was in a lot of their shoes not too long ago, and I think just knowing that I have the opportunity and the power to make a difference is what gets me the most excited.

Football has opened up doors and opportunities for me that I never would have thought possible. I didn’t come from money, and there are people just like me who haven’t gotten and may never get the opportunities I have. I’m not blind to the fact that I’ve been incredibly blessed, and I feel it’s my opportunity to continue providing for my family and educating not only myself but those close to me.

Our country has been around for a long time, and the only way that we’re going to continue moving forward and battling injustices is for us all to take a step back and understand what’s really at hand and what we can do to change it.

This story originally appeared in Facing Social Justice in Sports, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized and edited by Dr. Adam J. Kuban.

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