Browns GM Andrew Berry challenges team, fans on social justice after George Floyd killing

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They laid flowers to mourn and to remember.

On the same day the world paid its final respects to George Floyd, more than a dozen members of the Cleveland Browns' front office gathered to reflect on another life tragically cut short by police.

The life of Tamir Rice.

The group -- which included head coach Kevin Stefanski, general manager Andrew Berry and executive vice president JW Johnson -- spent almost an hour on June 9 visiting the Cleveland park where Rice, 12, was gunned down in November 2014. And as they stood together that Tuesday morning, they recalled where they were the moment they heard that a young Black boy, who had been throwing snowballs and playing with a toy pellet gun, was fatally shot by police within seconds of a squad car arriving on scene.

Five and a half years later, the same types of killings are occurring across America.

Five and a half years later, the same inequities of being Black in America still exist.

And in the wake of the recent killing of Floyd by Minneapolis police, Berry issued a challenge to the Browns organization.

Berry, the NFL's youngest GM at 33, sat in front of his computer on the evening of June 4, typing out his thoughts as best he could. He contemplated everything he had seen taking place around the world.

Images of death. Feelings of despair. The destruction of property. The loss of innocence.

But the more Berry wrote, the more he erased. The words had to be just right. The message had to be clear.

Within a few hours, Berry had woven together nearly 800 words of heartfelt emotion, unfiltered insight into being a father of two young Black sons. A challenge, too.

He pledged to donate $8,460 to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund -- in honor of Floyd and other recent victims of racial violence, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and David McAtee -- if at least 50 Browns employees would do one of three things:

  • Spend at least 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the initially reported amount of time a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on Floyd's neck) on one of the educational tools (such as movies, documentaries, podcasts) listed at the bottom of the email, and submit a short written or video reflection on what they learned or will do moving forward.

  • Sign up for a social activism initiative.

  • Donate to a social activism cause.

It was Berry's call to action. But he made it clear to members of the organization that the moment wasn't about him. It was an opportunity to learn, to grow and to be agents of change in the community and the world at large.

At the bottom, he signed the memo: "Yours in Empathy, AB."

The following morning, he sent it to every employee who wasn't a player. The response was immediate.

"We got more than 50 on the first day," Berry, one of only two Black general managers in the NFL, said in a recent phone interview with ESPN. "That's what was most touching: just how quickly and aggressively the people that we work with on a daily basis engaged on this matter."

Within a few days, an estimated 70 participants had collectively raised over $160,000 and counting, a figure that included donations from Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, who pledged to match all employee contributions. As of Monday of this week, the organization had raised $185,522.74 for 14 different charities. Berry has issued the same challenge to fans, players past and present, media and sponsors through the Browns' #BeTheSolution campaign.

His hope is that 8,460 people will visit the Browns' website to access the same educational resources and charity information included in the email Berry sent to team employees, then share a video reflection about what they learned from the subject matter and how they'll be more involved in social activism.

Although this is Berry's first year as Browns general manager, the organization is no stranger to charitable work. In recent years, players and members of the organization took part in a six-hour Listen & Learn tour of the Ohio criminal justice system, sitting in on bail hearings and visiting with inmates at the Cuyahoga County Jail. The Cleveland Browns Foundation launched a statewide initiative to improve school attendance. The organization donated $75,000 to the Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute as part of its commitment to social justice. And the Haslams organized a series of summits involving players and local law enforcement and government officials.

Although the organization has done plenty, it's determined to do more.

Players were given the day off on June 9, but Stefanski instructed them to do something good in the community to honor Floyd, whose private funeral was held the same day in Houston. Meanwhile, Stefanski, Berry and other front-office staffers visited the site where Rice was killed.

Nearly six years ago, former Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a "Justice for Tamir Rice" T-shirt during warm-ups before Cleveland's December 2014 game against the Bengals. At the time, he explained to reporters: "My wearing of the T-shirt wasn't a stance against every police officer or every police department. My wearing of the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason to innocent people."

Now, more NFL players than ever are speaking out about police brutality, systemic racism and social injustice after Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police ignited worldwide protests.

Berry said he couldn't stomach watching the clip showing the final minutes of Floyd's life.

"Honestly ... I-I couldn't. I can't watch the whole thing," he said. "When I see the video, I think about my two Black sons. I think about my brother. I think about my college roommates. People like that, who could be him. ... It just resonates a little too personally."

Fear. Helplessness. Anger.

"Probably, any Black man in America can see himself in that situation," Berry said. "But I think it's more the thought of the people that you love and you can't necessarily control where they are at all times. You can't protect them. I'm not going to be able to protect my two little boys for life. And I'm sure that's the same feelings my dad had for me and my brother."

As one of the only two Black GMs in the NFL, Berry understands the power and importance of his platform. But his status within the league isn't what prompted him to craft the email to Browns employees, he said.

"It's more that I want to see tangible, meaningful action around this cause because I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "The thing that struck me is, we've had a number of these types of incidents over our history, and certainly within recent history.

"And I think the emotion, the passion, the things that people are feeling now -- at some point, the emotion is going to wane some. At least nationally. And the important part is being able to channel that energy into something that's productive and actionable so that all of these tragedies don't happen in vain."

"... the things that people are feeling now -- at some point, the emotion is going to wane some. ... And the important part is being able to channel that energy into something that's productive and actionable so that all of these tragedies don't happen in vain." Browns GM Andrew Berry

Berry credited Stefanski and veteran players with partaking in and encouraging dialogue about recent events during team meetings. But Berry didn't see the same level of collective engagement on the business side of the building.

So he started thinking about it. Then he shared his idea for the email challenge with ownership, Stefanski, chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, senior vice president of communications Peter John-Baptiste and several trusted colleagues. On the morning of June 5, Berry's email went out.

The GM recorded his video message to the Browns community. He said he's not worried about receiving criticism from fans who are frustrated about social justice issues seeping into the sports domain.

"There are some things that are bigger than football. And I think this is one of those things," Berry said. "To me, this isn't a political issue. This is a human issue. Eradicating racial injustice is something that everyone should be behind."