With the 2022 NFL season underway, Burrow is more than the quarterback who almost led the Cincinnati Bengals to their first Super Bowl championship. He also is the league’s only quarterback to publicly address gun violence and abortion rights, at risk of hurting his approval rating even in his home state of Ohio.
Chris Dorr, executive director of Ohio Gun Owners, told USA TODAY Sports that gun owners across the country reacted strongly to Burrow's comments.
"The universal response was, 'Oh, look, this guy wants to Kaepernick himself,' " Dorr said, referring to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"If he starts taking a knee, or if he starts continuing to hammer on gun rights and for gun control, if he starts doing rallies with gun control proponents, I think then you’ll see the level of disdain for him get ratcheted up significantly.''
But at 25, Burrow has clearly decided he’s capable of more than just throwing footballs.
Talking about 'landmine' issues
Five months after playing laudably in a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 56, Joe Burrow tackled something new.
On June 14, responding to a reporter’s question about mass shootings, Burrow said it should be harder for people to buy “crazy guns,’’ referring to assault rifles that have been used in recent mass shootings. In Ohio, the age limit to buy a semi-automatic rifle is 18 and, according to the Pew Research Center, there are 173,405 registered guns, the eighth most of any state.
On June 27, three days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Burrow shared on Instagram an abortion-rights post. In Ohio, the Supreme Court ruling triggered a ban on abortions at six weeks, except in cases of life endangerment to the mother or severely compromised physical health.
"I was very impressed with his courage in going into subject matter that could put him at odds with certain conservative fans,'' said Reggie Williams, a linebacker who played for the Bengals from 1976 to 1989 and spent three years on the Cincinnati City Council. "His remarks about gun control were particularly striking to me because when I was on Cincinnati's City Council, I put forth legislation to ban assault weapons anywhere near schools.
"I had been playing in Cincinnati for 13 years, and that was the first time I started getting hate mail. Including being called an N-word.
"The abortion rights issue, that too is another landmine.''
Burrow declined an interview request from USA TODAY Sports, but his parents offered insight into their son’s decision to comment on potentially divisive social issues.
“I don’t think it’s just a kneejerk reaction,’’ Burrow’s father, Jimmy, said. “I think it’s something he thinks through before he does it. But certainly, he has strong opinions that he’s willing to share with people.’’
He's been doing it longer than many people realize.
Joe Burrow family roots
On Sept. 28, 2013, Burrow was a 16-year-old junior quarterback at Athens High School in Ohio. That night, he led the team to a 55-46 victory over Fairland High School. The next night, Burrow posted a scathing tweet accusing the opposing team of racism and of targeting one of his Black teammates.
Nathan White, the offensive coordinator for Athens High that season, said Burrow was angry and in tears after the game and tried to comfort the Black teammate who had been targeted.
"All of the young kids on our team, I’m certain what they remember is Joe being a leader and trying to make his teammate feel better, do something, have his back,'' White said. "Of course, Joe couldn’t fix the situation, but there’s no doubt that all the kids on our team saw Joe as a leader in a different light that night."
The incident conjures family history for Burrow's father.
Jimmy Burrow grew up in Mississippi and attended Amory High School when it was integrated in the 1960s.
“Sports, I think, helped that whole transition to really go as smooth as it did in a small school in north Mississippi in the late '60s,'' Jimmy Burrow said. "So I certainly have always been aware how sports can help certain problems or at least make it better.
"Back then you probably didn’t speak out a whole lot about a lot of things. But we were certainly aware of the issues in the South at that point in time.''
Jimmy Burrow said his father, James, was a school principal and a reserve in the National Guard. And in 1962, Jimmy Burrow said, his father was deployed to Oxford, Mississippi, after riots broke out when James Meredith was set to become the first Black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi.
Meredith succeeded once the National Guard and other federal and state forces stopped the riots and protected Meredith.
During a recent conversation with his 91-year-old father, Jimmy Burrow said, he learned his father had been in Oxford for three weeks during the ordeal. He stayed underneath the football stadium stands at Ole Miss without a sleeping bag for the first few days, according to Jimmy Burrow, who said his father recalled seeing a KKK member or two get stopped at a roadblock.
“My dad’s always been proud that he was a National Guard for over 25 years,’’ Jimmy Burrow said. “So Joe was aware of that, just knowing that my dad was involved in that.’’
After the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Burrow was the first Bengals player to address it publicly.
"The black community needs our help," he tweeted May 29. "They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights."
Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist and civil rights activist with strong ties to the NFL, cast doubt on the impact Burrow's statements might have -- in part because Burrow has not been involved in protests.
“I like him,'' Edwards said of Burrow. "I love him, in fact. I admire his courage, I admire his insight, I admire his commitment. But don't tell me that this is going to change anything.’’
Joe Burrow was born in Ames, Iowa, where his father was coaching high school football. In 2005, Jimmy Burrow was hired as defensive coordinator at Ohio University, and The Plains, a town of less than 3,000 in Athens County, became home for the Burrows.
In a red state, Athens County was a pocket of blue.
“Although I’m grounded in conservative values, I’ve always been willing to listen to people that use common sense to address issues,’’ Jimmy Burrow said. “What Joe said makes perfect sense and I believe what he said to be true.
"I’m proud of Joe for his willingness to speak out.’’
Heisman speech and hunger
The Plains Lions Club paid for two historical markers in town that read, “Home of Joe Burrow. 2019 Heisman Trophy winner." That was before Burrow shared his views about gun control and abortion.
“It is kind of unfortunate,’’ said Bill Snider, president of The Plains Lions Club, “that different sports figures – not just Joey, but the No. 1 I think of is LeBron – (are) preaching agendas that I’m just not sure is the right thing for athletes to do.’’
It’s unlikely Burrow will retreat into a world of “no comment.” About 2 ½ years ago, he discovered the power of his words.
It was Dec. 14, 2019, at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York, and Burrow had just won the Heisman Trophy as LSU's quarterback. With ESPN televising the presentation, Burrow delivered his acceptance speech that included a reference to his home.
“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average,’’ he said. “There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot, and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here, too.’’
Donations to feed the hungry came pouring in. Between the day of Burrow’s Heisman speech and January 2020, about $650,000 was raised, said Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry.
The money led to the creation of the Joe Burrow Hunger Relief Fund, an endowment that has grown to almost $1.7 million, according to Bright.
“It tells me how powerful words can be,’’ she said. “ ...when they are spoken sincerely, from the heart, by somebody who has a platform or a following, a fan base.’’
Attending Athens County schools, Burrow saw some of the hunger firsthand. He also heard about it from his mother, the principal at Eastern Elementary School in Meigs County, where monthly food packages are provided to students and a monthly food pantry is available for their families.
“I think Joe is very curious and he soaks everything in without saying a lot, usually,’’ said Robin Burrow, who is on the board of the Appalachian Children Coalition, dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children in the region. “If you want to sit down and spend an hour, he might say 10 words to you the whole entire time if he’s not in an interview. But I share stories from school with him, the ones that make the biggest impact on my life, so he’s definitely aware of people being challenged.
“Obviously we’re very proud of him for being socially aware and not afraid to speak his mind.''
Joe Burrow’s parents said they had no advance warning about what was coming in June.
Outspoken on guns
During a news conference at the Bengals facility, Burrow was asked for his reaction in the wake of the May 24 mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 schoolchildren and two teachers dead.
“With everything that’s going on, if you’re not going to outlaw everything, you’ve got to at least make it harder to get those crazy guns that everybody’s using,” Burrow said. “I don’t think you should be able to just walk in there and buy one. You got to be able to go through a rigorous process to buy something like that, I think.
“So hopefully, the people that make those decisions figure that out. My job is to play football, but hopefully the politicians can figure that one out.”
Kevin Martin, who owns the Hilltop Gun Club in Athens County, said he disagreed with Burrow.
“The man has never touched or shot a firearm in his life,’’ Martin told USA TODAY Sports. “He knows nothing about their usages in any capacity, means, reasons or ways.’’
Jimmy Burrow said he has no knowledge of Joe Burrow ever touching or shooting a firearm.
Martin, who insisted there are no “crazy guns’’ but plenty of “crazies’’ who shoot guns, said he’s still a Burrow fan, adding, "He represents the great state of Ohio, but he should learn more about firearms.’’
Burrow cemented support from Ethan Nichols, who in 2018 founded the Ohio Students for Gun Legislation when he was a high school student in Cincinnati.
“Joe Burrow is in an immense place of privilege, especially with the kind of societal status he holds,’’ Nichols told USA TODAY Sports. “And being able to use that for good, for pushing common sense solutions to gun violence and demanding more from our elected officials, it matters.’’
Burrow wasn't done.
Three days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, he shared on Instagram an abortion rights post.
The post, which read, “I’m not pro-murdering babies," included examples where states could deny abortions regardless of the circumstances – such as a woman who learned after a 20-week anatomy scan that her infant would be born without life-sustaining organs; or a woman who was impregnated when she was sexually assaulted; or an 11-year-old girl who was impregnated when she was raped.
Samantha Scanlon, author of the post, said her husband, Brian, “lost his mind’’ when he discovered Burrow had shared the post. Scanlon said she and the women who read her Facebook blog were impressed with the NFL quarterback.
“He might be losing people that are in support of him, but he’s also gaining so many people that don’t even watch football,’’ Scanlon said. “All of these women are like, ‘Oh, my goodness. That is amazing that he’s speaking out, that he’s using his platform.’
“He doesn’t even have to say anything. The fact that he’s sharing this shows that he’s in support of women.’’
Laura Strietmann is executive director of Greater Cincinnati Right to Life and said the group was aware of Burrow’s sharing the post.
“Oh, yes, we all talked about it,’’ Strietmann told USA TODAY Sports. “And the first thing we all said was, ‘We love Joe Burrow.’ You know, we’re not going to go there and criticize him.
“He’s a young guy. We’ve got to give him a chance to learn. You don’t teach anybody or bring them along to your side by bashing them.’’
Most NFL quarterbacks play it safe.
In 2015, when Brady was playing for the New England Patriots, reporters spotted a "Make America Great Again" hat in his locker at Gillette Stadium. But ever since, Brady stressed that Donald Trump was simply a friend of his and the hat was not meant to be a political statement.
Brady and few other NFL quarterbacks ever allow themselves to get drawn into controversy.
“And can you blame them at times?" asked Ken Anderson, who played quarterback for the Bengals from 1971 to 1986. "It’s not players, but I got an incident. We went to a pool party at a neighbor’s house and we start talking about assault weapons and schools, and there’s heated discussions on both sides. And that’s among neighbors.
"So if you want to tackle some of these issues, I think you know there’s going to be some ramifications.''
The obvious example is Kaepernick, who never played in the NFL again after the 2016 season, when he started kneeling during the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality and social injustice against Black and brown people.
Dorr, executive director of Ohio Gun Owners, said of Burrow, "He better just focus on trying to get that first Super Bowl ring rather than trying to become the orator for the liberal left.''
But the month after Burrow addressed gun violence and abortion rights, Bengals president Mike Brown said getting Burrow a contract extension was a priority. And Burrow's future will involve more than football.
He has pledged to serve communities in need as part of a collaboration with Guinness that aims "to get Americans to pledge more than one million service hours to support their communities," the beer company announced Thursday.
There is more to come, according to Burrow's father.
"Joe and our family have talked a lot about what is next and how we can make an impact,'' Jimmy Burrow said. "Joe has ideas that are focused around his passions of mental illness and food insecurity.
"We continue to work his thoughts into plans that will help areas that have been so good to Joe and the Burrow family. Those plans will be put into action in the near future.''
Contributing: Jarrett Bell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Burrow is rarest of NFL QBs. Bengals star not afraid to speak up.