Benjamin Watson is used to people talking about his writing by now.
The veteran Saints tight end is the author of two books, “Under Our Skin” and “The New Dad’s Playbook,” works that have made an impact outside the world of football.
But Watson was surprised to find out from a Twitter follower this week that “Under Our Skin” is playing a key role in federal court proceedings in Alabama this summer.
U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala has ordered all of the participants in a school desegregation case to read “Under Our Skin” before a July 17 hearing on a motion for attorney fees, an order Haikala entered on June 28, according to court documents.
Watson had no idea until an alert Twitter user sent him a link to a Monday story by AL.com, the organization that discovered the order and first wrote about Haikala’s decision.
“I don’t know anything other than the article I read,” Watson told The Advocate on Tuesday. “I’m kind of astonished.”
Watson wrote “Under Our Skin,” an examination of racial discrimination in America and a call for racial reconciliation, in 2015. The book is a deeper exploration of thoughts and emotions Watson first wrote in a 2014 Facebook post following the news that a Missouri grand jury did not indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
Both the book and the Facebook post earned Watson national recognition and made the veteran tight end a leading voice on racial relations both in the NFL and the Christian community, but Haikala’s order was something he could never have envisioned.
“I’m honored and humbled that she would use my book in a case,” Watson said. “I don’t know what the hopeful outcome is from her assigning the book, but I do know and hope the book allows both sides to talk and find a solution.”
The order itself offers some explanation.
Haikala, who offered to make copies of the book available to those who might need it, ordered all of the attorneys of record in the case, the superintendents of two school systems and any school board members and any private plaintiffs who testified at the trial to read Watson’s book.
“Reduced to its simplest form, the discussion begs the question: who are the winners here? Conversely, who are the losers?” Haikala wrote, then further wrote that she assigned the book “to help the parties examine the issue.”
The July 17 hearing will determine whether the Gardendale Board of Education owes the plaintiff’s lawyers more than $1.3 million in legal fees as the “prevailing party” after the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that Gardendale could not secede from the Jefferson County school district and form its own district because the decision to secede was racially motivated.
Haikala had initially ruled that Gardendale would be allowed to secede even though she found that the decision was motivated by race. According to the motion that led to the upcoming hearing, when Gardendale decided not to appeal beyond the 11th Circuit, the plaintiff’s attorneys asserted that they had become the “prevailing party” in a civil rights case and are thus entitled to recover fees from the district.
Advocate writer Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed to this report.