The moment was bigger than football — so much bigger — and Andrew Berry felt it.
As the days unfolded following the tragic death of George Floyd, and protests spread from coast to coast and across the globe, the Browns EVP of Football Operations and GM couldn't shake it. He knew, too, that those closest to him — his "Browns family" — likely were harboring similar feelings.
So, on the morning of June 5, Berry reached out to all Browns employees with a lengthy email. Ultimately, it would serve as the inspiration for a call to action that now includes all Browns fans through the team's #BeTheSolution campaign, which launched Wednesday.
"It's been a very encouraging response," Berry said. "It's something that, if scaled appropriately, I think we could actually make real change in our society."
Berry's email started with a message of empathy and sympathy to those who have struggled to focus on the day-to-day not only because of what was transpiring in the wake of Floyd's death, but also the recent tragedies involving Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — two young African-Americans whose lives were unnecessarily taken in unfathomable fashion.
"On a personal level, I've cycled through feelings of frustration, anger, despondency and — yes — even hope throughout the week," Berry wrote. "I'm the father of two black boys and I'm most thankful that they are young enough to maintain their innocence.
"Whether you are empathetic or sympathetic, let's take some time to not ignore the obvious ... this is not 'business as usual.'"
Berry's hope only grew from what happened next.
Berry closed his email with a challenge. He would donate $8,460 in honor of George Floyd and other recent victims to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund if at least 50 employees did one of the following:
1. Spend at least 8 minutes and 46 seconds (in honor of Floyd) on one of a number of educational or dialogue items provided in the email and submit a short written or video reflection on what they learned or will do moving forward.
2. Sign up for any social activism initiative
3. Donate anything to a social activism cause
Within 24 hours, more than 50 employees had taken the challenge. Shortly thereafter, the Haslam family pledged to match every dollar raised and contributed to the organizations of the employees' choice. As of Monday, Browns staff has raised $185,522.74 for 14 different charities.
Now, those resources are being made available outside of the Browns' organization to anyone that would like to do their part to Be The Solution.
"We are a family. We're in this for one reason," Berry said. "We realize what's right, and there are some things that are more important than football. I think too many times organizations can be tone deaf to those dynamics. This is one of those moments where our focus can't be only or solely what goes on between those white lines. There are just bigger societal issues at play.
"NFL teams, in general, have such an influence on their communities that if we can't be at the front of the pack on some of these issues that impact all of us, then shame on us."
Browns players and coaches have taken Berry's message to heart and put words into action.
During a virtual team meeting, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski urged his players to "get in the arena" and use their unique platform to help bring real change to the fight against racial injustice. When Floyd was memorialized at a funeral in his native Houston, Stefanski gave the team the day off so they could pay their respects. Stefanski and a number of coaches and executives used that time to visit the memorial of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old, African-American boy who was shot and killed by two Cleveland police officers in Nov. 2014.
"I think what Andrew did was outstanding," said Stefanski, who also attended a protest in Avon with his sons and mother. "It's a message we've constantly been harping on is being about action and Andrew very specifically was about things we can do, things we can educate ourselves with. It was really a challenge to all of us. This has been a stark reminder of how we can affect positive change and anything I can do to help our players do that, I'm going to do."
From Bill Wills and Marion Motley — who helped break football's color barrier in 1946 — to Hall of Famer Jim Brown — who has devoted his post-playing years to fighting racial injustice — to Andrew Hawkins — who wore a shirt that sought justice for Rice and John Crawford III over top of his jersey before a 2014 game — the Browns have entered "the arena" on plenty of occasions throughout their storied history.
"It's been great that people in the public have been able to see there is a problem with race in our country. It's been good to see that people are expressing outrage, anger, condemnation," Berry said. "I also think it's important that this moment in history and this moment in time, that emotion is channeled into action that can advance the ball."
In recent years, social justice initiatives have become a major off-field priority for the franchise, which has seen players participate in ride-alongs with police officers, engage in summits that brought citizens and city officials together for important dialogue and donate their time and money to local causes. Dee and Jimmy Haslam and a core group of Browns executives regularly meet with players to discuss and coordinate community engagement opportunities with organizations and in areas supporting social justice where players wish to make an impact. Through those discussions, Browns players identified wanting to support police-community relations, including through local Neighborhood Equality & Unity Summit discussions and collaborative visits to Cleveland Recreation Centers; addressing recidivism and creating job opportunities; and providing educational resources to students in need.
In Dec. 2019, Browns players celebrated the start of Breaking New Ground's first home renovation with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM), the recent beneficiary of a $100,000 team contribution as a reflection of the NFL's Inspire Change movement. In May 2019, seven Browns players visited a local courthouse and jail as part of a Listen and Learn tour to get a closer look at how the justice system operates. The team also donated $75,000 apiece to EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, which gives formerly incarcerated adults a foundation in the culinary/hospitality industry while providing a support network necessary to their long-term success, and Bloom Bakery, which supplies training and resources and assists in securing jobs for individuals who have been incarcerated. The Browns and Browns players have also made additional contributions to City of Cleveland recreation centers to help create more opportunities for youth to learn and play in their own community. Since 2016, the Haslams have funded the installation of synthetic turf fields at nine locations across Northeast Ohio.
Dee Haslam is also a member of the NFL's player-owner social justice committee, which was established in December 2017 with the focus of supporting programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity with a priority on supporting improvements in education and economic development, community and police relations and the criminal justice system.
Progress has been made, but it hasn't been nearly enough. That's why Berry hit "send" on an email that quickly became something much, much bigger.