A day after Johnny Manziel’s horrific debut as a starter, Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine did what men in his position should: he took the heat off his guy. Pettine told an incredulous Cleveland media at his Monday presser that he saw “flashes” -- of talent, we assume -- in Johnny Football’s 10-of-18, 80-yard, 2 INT flop. Other Browns players ‘graded well’ in the 30-0 drubbing, he said. Pettine seemed to not have watched the same game as the rest of us because there was indisputable video evidence that his entire team was guilty of football misconduct. But leaders sometimes tell the public outlandish things for the sake of their troops’ morale. In the NFL, head coaches willfully become lightning rods that conduct well-earned criticism away from their players after poor performances.

So it is also for police unions, and that is the entry point for understanding the vitriol directed at Browns wideout Andrew Hawkins and members of the St. Louis Rams by police union officials in those cities. Union officials are asking for apologies from players who have expressed sympathy for the victims of questionable police killings. They want the focus to be on those expressions rather than on the killings themselves.

That can’t happen.

As with the Browns, there’s a mountain of evidence that cops are routinely guilty of misconduct -- perhaps criminally -- in use of force, especially against unarmed black men and boys. Because of this, cops are being confronted about their performance in mass demonstrations and questioned in media scrums that surpass what NFL head coaches face every week. 

Enter Hawkins, the Rams and other athletes including LeBron James and the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. Hawkins took the field wearing a T-shirt advocating for justice for Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed by police last month in Cleveland. Surveillance video showed that Rice was shot a mere two seconds after police arrived. It contradicted several police statements about what occurred in the incident. Shootings like these have prompted many athletes to align themselves with what is arguably the largest protest movement that the country has seen in decades. They’re supporting the victims of these shootings, though not condemning all cops. Still, that’s got to be uncomfortable for police, who -- if recent grand jury decisions are any indication -- are used to getting the benefit of the doubt when using force or detaining citizens. It can’t be good for morale. Somebody’s got to take the heat.

If you were a head coach whose players were under this much scrutiny, you’d mount the podium and defend your players. You’d talk about the great preparation your team does every week, how good they look in seven-on-sevens, how there were bright spots on special teams. You might even feign indignation that reporters covering your team would be so bold as to question what went wrong. After all, those guys don’t even know the game. Sound familiar?

"It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns and the Browns organization owes us an apology." --  Cleveland Police Patrolman Union president Jeff Follmer.

"The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology." -- Jeff Roorda, St. Louis Police Officers Association business manager.

It’s easy to look at those statements with disgust, to be dismissive of police unions who look like they’re trying to bully the NFL and cow its athletes to silence. That’s not entirely wrong but it’s also not a full reading of the unions’ motives. Neither Follmer nor Roorda have a fiber in them that believed they could force the NFL to suspend a player for wearing a T-shirt. Public sentiment is too far divided on the issue. Based on demographics alone, NFL locker rooms almost surely lean toward Hawkins’ position than Roorda and Follmer’s. After Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, this isn’t a fight Roger Goodell is about to pick with the NFLPA to mollify the local FOP. Hawkins later addressed the controversy in a locker room press conference.

Roorda and Follmer knew this before they released their statements. They never expected personal apologies from Hawkins or the Rams, nor sanctions from the NFL. (It’s also worth noting that not all police unions behave the same on this issue). What they want is what coaches want when their teams play poorly on Sunday: to change the narrative and get the media’s focus away from their flailing, besieged quarterbacks. They want the issue to be Andrew Hawkins’ T-shirt, not how cops may have lied about what happened when they killed a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun. They want a discussion about how five Rams players allegedly disrespected good cops with a symbolic gesture, rather than one about how a bad cop killed an unarmed young man then was not held to account for his deadly actions.

These are all distractions. The discussion around police abuse in this country is long overdue, as is the movement toward substantive reform of departments that allow these abuses to continue unabated.

It’s a conversation that everyone, including athletes, should be allowed to participate in, one that should NOT be derailed by union bosses who want us all to be watching a different game.