Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann joined the National Football Foundation on Tuesday for a Black History Month Q&A session.
Swann discussed a number of topics, including his life as a Black athlete, current players embarking on social justice initiatives and the importance football has played in his life.
Swann detailed an experience early in his career when he, his brothers and cousin had a negative experience with the police. While they had done nothing wrong, Swann said that the situation tarnished his reputation, stacking the odds against him just has he was beginning his Steeler career.
“My career as a professional started out on kind of shaky ground. The day I got drafted, I took my two brothers and cousin out to dinner in San Francisco to celebrate,” he said. “After we left the restaurant, we got stopped by the police. To make a long story short, and what is typical in a lot of young Black men’s lives, we were stopped by the police, beaten up and thrown in jail for nothing. I spent the next two years fighting the San Francisco police in court. We won the case and the lawsuit. Again, that was right after I was drafted by the Steelers. So, the media had the stories all over the front page, saying, oh my, who did we draft here. So, it was trying to fight through that reputation and what was said about me at that particular time to find a place on the football team. It was a challenge, but at the end of the day, for the most part, it worked out. But it would not be the last time something of that nature would happen.”
Swann, his brothers and cousin were eventually awarded $40,000 each in a lawsuit. While Swann was unfairly characterized by the situation at first, he allowed his work in the community and play on the field speak for themselves.
“I let who I was as a person speak,” Swann said. “I let my involvement in different things around Pittsburgh in the community speak for who I am. And then I let football decide what kind of a player I was in terms of performance, ability and talent and things of that nature.”
Swann also shared his thoughts on the growing number of athletes using their platforms to help enact change. While he is all for athletes doing their part, he does not believe it is the time or place to do so on the field.
“I think every individual player who is concerned about something that is not related to football, not related to sports, spends their time, spends their money, spends their energy and effort to making that better by becoming involved on that particular platform,” Swann said. “But I think we stand on very thin ice when we start to believe that because we played a sport, because we’re an entertainer, that we should tell people how they should think and what they should believe in and how to act. I think people are better off seeing examples of people who care about certain things. But they have to understand that when people go watch you play football: they’re going to watch your team play. They’re not going for a discourse in politics, or even in social justice. But the fact that, there are examples of social justice, and people working together from all kinds of backgrounds and races and so forth is a lesson in and of itself.”
Swann also discussed the important role football has played in his life.
“Football has been huge for me from my start as a 12-year-old playing Pop Warner football for the Peninsula San Bruno Jets in California and the Bay Area,” he said. “It was my first involvement in real competitive sports, finding out I didn’t necessarily have all the assets to be very good. It was the beginning of a process that was an important base for me in self-realization and having a new experience and not having success. Football is an amazing place to find out about yourself and to test yourself. It’s a crucible. It’s either going to spit you out, or it’s going to shape you and make you.”
Selected in the first round of the 1974 NFL Draft, Swann played his entire nine-year career in Pittsburgh. He tallied 336 career receptions, 5,462 yards and 51 touchdowns. He was selected to three Pro Bowls and named First-Team All-Pro in 1978, Swann was also named Walter Payton Man of the Year in 1981.
A four-time Super Bowl champion, Swann was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Read the entire conversation between Swann and the National Football Foundation here.