They say “May you live in interesting times,” but this all may feel like a bit much to many.
We are battling a global pandemic that has changed the way we live and work. The world of sports has been in a months long extended pause. At the same time, we are grappling – perhaps more deeply and more seriously than ever before – with our nation’s deeply flawed past and present in terms of racism. The nationwide Black Lives Matter racial justice protest movement borne out of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officers is now being called the biggest protest movement in the United States history.
In some ways, it feels like we have been here before.
In 2014, there were the Ferguson, Missouri protests in the wake of the police killing of another unarmed Black man, Michael Brown. That same year, Staten Island police choked the life out of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man selling loose cigarettes, as he cried ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
At the time, the searing wound that is American racism – expressed through a very public continued scourge of police killings with no accountability and no justice – catapulted activist athletes – ranging from LeBron James to Derrick Rose to Royce White to Reggie Bush to Andrew Hawkins – into speaking out publicly and joining the #ICantBreathe protests.
Former NBA and Iowa State star, Royce White powerfully asked: “If some of us can’t see clearly, and others of us can’t breathe, who among the rest of us will have the courage to step forward, and name and treat these afflictions for the betterment of us all?” Then Cleveland Browns wide receiver, Andrew Hawkins, urged us all to “support the causes and the people and the injustices that you feel strongly about. Stand up for them. Speak up for them. No matter what it is because that’s what America’s about and that’s what this country was founded on.”
Today’s protests and outcries echo all of that angst, anger, and injustice from six years ago in today’s racial justice protest movement. Perhaps – hopefully – it is a continuation and culmination that brings real change.
Of course, this didn’t all start in 2014. This has always been going on in America. Constantly. But now these moments are often captured on video – recorded on phones or body-cams – and shared widely on social media where we are forced to see and reckon with this reality.
We know only a few of their names. But another high profile and outrage-inspiring example occurred just a few years earlier. In 2012, seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Florida by a white “neighborhood watchmen” George Zimmerman.
These were not isolated incidents, nor did they end or pause after the events of 2014.
In 2015, the Baltimore police arrested Freddy Gray and charged him with possession of a knife. He died in the police van. 2016 brought another police killing of a Black man, this time Philando Castille was the victim, fatally shot during a traffic stop in Minnesota.
No one was held criminally responsible for any of these killings.
This year, 2020, in the weeks before the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, EMT and aspiring nurse Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in her own home in Kentucky, Ahmed Arbery was hunted and killed by two white men in Georgia, and Amy Cooper weaponizing her whiteness by calling the police and fraudulently telling them that a Black birdwatcher in Central Park who had asked her to leash her dog was threatening her.
And then George Floyd.
As Jelani Cobb put it in his ‘American Spring of Reckoning,’ “As with men, who upon seeing the scroll of #MeToo testimonies, asked their wives, daughters, sisters and co-workers, ‘Is it really that bad?,’ the shock of revelation that attended the video of Floyd’s death is itself a kind of inequality, a barometer of the extent to which one group of Americans have moved through life largely free from the burden of such terrible knowledge.”
At home, quarantined due to the coronavirus, America watched and then took to the streets in cities across the nation.
Against this backdrop, America’s athletes have been more vocal than ever. That in and of itself is causing a mix of excitement at a powerful call for change, consternation by those resisting it, and a richer and more public conversation about race and racism (and other social issues) than we’ve ever had before in this country.
Is it different this time for America? For athletes and our sports media?
Author and columnist, Dave Zirin, has been considering these issues for decades. Zirin is currently the sports editor at The Nation and hosts its Edge of Sports podcast. He has authored ten books on the politics of sports and the intersection of sports and politics, including “What’s My Name, Fool?”, “The Muhammad Ali Handbook,” “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports,” “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” and “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”
We asked Zirin what if anything has changed today and to comment on this shift towards players speaking out politically and whether that change is sustainable:
“We’ve long been told that it is financially irresponsible to “be political” (whatever that means) as a professional athlete in one’s prime. Are we in a new place? What if anything has changed?”
Zirin’s response identified the most significant contributing factors as the broader social movement and athlete’s having their own social media platforms:
“What has changed is that there is a struggle in the streets that is reflecting into the world of sports.
That’s the true history of sports activism: it never starts in a vacuum. It always begins because thousands of regular folk take to the streets and demand change. Their doing so has increased the oxygen for athletes to be able to breathe freely and say how they feel.
It also helps that we are living in a social media age where athletes can express how they feel without the interference from an often hostile sports media.”
From Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Lew Alicondor protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s to Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raising their fists on the 1968 Olympics Medal Podium to protest against racial discrimination to Billy Jean King fighting for gender equality and Arthur Ashe for racial equality in 1970’s.
Those players spoke out, and they also suffered the consequences of their outspokenness.
The era that I grew up in – from the 1980s – 2000s – was marked by even fewer athlete activists. Spike Lee and Michael Jordan teamed up to sell a lot of Nike sneakers, but political activism was not en vogue.
The most well-known players of that time period, Jordan and Tiger Woods, were both reluctant to rock the boat and saw speaking out as a financially fraught decision. Jordan famously justified his neutral political stance by remarking that, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” And when – in a move that foreshadowed Kaepernick’s anthem protest – Denver Nuggets star, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, protested by sitting out the national anthem in 1996, he very quickly found himself out of favor and out of a job.
Six years ago – we had the I Can’t Breathe protests in the NBA, including its most well-known and best player, LeBron James, speaking out.
That was followed in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in NFL, in what now looks destined to become one of the most famous and genius peaceful protests in the history of the world.
That wasn’t always the case, and it wasn’t even the case until very recently. At the time not many others joined him in kneeling, especially among white Americans, and the kneeling protest inspired an angry political backlash, with President Trump calling Black players “bastards” and railing against the protest as un-American and unpatriotic. The NFL and its owners chose that side.
Of course this backlash perfectly underscored the very point of the protest. Yet Kaepernick lost his job and was blackballed by the NFL and its ownership. It was not until a few weeks ago that the NFL tacitly admitted that it made a mistake in its handling of the situation by encouraging a team to sign him. How and whether they repair that mistake remains to be seen.
Back then, USA Soccer superstar, Meghan Rapinoe, joined Kaepernick in this protest on the soccer pitch. Rapinoe, who is gay and describes herself “as a walking protest,” explained that “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”
That wasn’t a lot of momentum, but it was something. And it gained power when Trump challenged Rapinoe and she – and her American Women’s National Team teammates – responded by winning the World Cup and speaking up even more eloquently and vociferously.
Caring for others is evergreen. Equality is evergreen. Having each other’s back it’s evergreen. Black lives matter is evergreen. Can’t believe it’s been a year! The people are bringing the revolution! ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿LFG https://t.co/oeR0nBuq0I
— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) July 10, 2020
Fast-forwarding to today, in 2020, it seems like a completely different world. In the wake of George Floyd, everyone is speaking out on racial justice, including some of the most prominent black athletes. And more than ever before, a number of white allies across the sports world are joining them.
We have been evolving towards this moment for some time. Athletes have garnered more power and influence over time; and the proliferation of media and social media – like Twitter and Instagram – has given them increased ability to use their platform and voice as influencers and social justice leaders.
The explosion of athletes voices in 2020 has been hard to keep up with, as players across the world of sports are speaking out daily on Black Lives Matter, on racism and policing, and on a host of other interconnected issues, including national politics, Native American rights, criminal justice reform, antisemitism, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, diversity and inclusion in corporate America, in sports, and in sports media:
MLB Baseball Players
MLB players and ex-players like Tim Anderson, Torii Hunter, and Ian Desmond are powerfully speaking out about race and MLB. A number of current and former players – including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, CC Sabathia, and Andrew McCutchen – posted a powerful video in support of Black Lives Matter.
— Giancarlo Stanton (@Giancarlo818) June 16, 2020
NBA and WNBA Basketball Players
In the NBA, coaches like Gregg Poppovich and Steve Kerr have been speaking out loudly and often, with plain talk about the evils of Trumpism.
When the NBA Bubble opens, the Black Lives Matter banner will adorn its courts. The NBA and WNBA have also for the first time agreed to allow players to replace the names on the backs of their jerseys with references to social justice and social causes they support like “Black Lives Matter.” Angel McCoughtry of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces came up with the idea, and McCoughty will be wearing a jersey with Breonna Taylor’s name on the back. In addition, some players have mentioned opting out of the Bubble, not only for safety reasons but also to keep the focus on social justice issues.
Kareem Adbul-Jabbar is still using his voice to lead, but now he is flanked by a generation of young NBA stars.
Over in the WNBA, one of its most decorated players, Maya Moore just sat out a season in the prime of her career to pursue criminal justice reform and the release of a man she believed was wrongly convicted. He was just released from prison earlier this month:
“This is the epitome of using your platform.”
As Moore said, ‘If you’re not committed to being deeply committed and invested over time, it’s not how legacies are made. Legacies are made and held by deep, over-time commitments to people.’
NFL Football Players
The NFL – ground zero for the bitter backlash against Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest – has changed its tune, with the Commissioner publicly encouraging teams to sign the exiled former-QB and numerous teams now saying they will support players who want to kneel during the anthem. Its star players have demanded changes in the way the league supports them in battling against police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Dontari Poe of the Dallas Cowboys has said that he plans to kneel and has publicly called for Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, to break his silence and support Black Lives Matter.
We asked Zirin where he saw this movement going in both pro and college sports. He foresees its continued growth and spread, even in the previously hostile to “external”-social-justice-issues National Football League:
I expect if there is NFL Season, we’ll see kneeling around the league. And I hereby predict that a Dallas Cowboy will take a knee!
This alone would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In fact, we thought that one of the hard-hitting questions we asked Dave Zirin for this article a few short weeks ago was whether he thought a Dallas Cowboy player would kneel this year. Now that Poe has spoken out, his prediction that a Cowboy would kneel went from a Nostradamus-like prediction to common knowledge by everyone that watches SportsCenter.
The movement has by no means been limited to professional sports. In the college game, numerous schools, including Kansas State, University of Texas, Missouri and Northwestern have seen teams organize boycotts to press for changes like dropping the ‘Eyes of Texas’ as a school song.
Over at Oklahoma State, Heisman candidate and running back, Chubba Howard made waves when he reacted to an online photo of Coach Mike Gandy in an OAN t-shirt, stating that it was “unacceptable,” “completely insensitive to everything going on in society,” and that he would “not be doing anything with Oklahoma State until things CHANGE.” OAN is a “news network” that is a favorite of President Trump that is known to traffic in far-right wing propaganda and has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a farce” and a “criminal front group.” That started an important conversation. Since that time, Howard has returned and Oklahoma State has reduced Coach Gandy’s contract, after an internal review. The Howard-Gandy incident underscores how much power and influence student-athletes could have, if they are brave enough to use it.
Zirin was also particularly interested in where this could go at the college level and how much power athletes can wield towards positive change, if they get organized and continue to be bold:
They need to organize more, especially at the collegiate level. Frederick Douglass said that “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
So demands need to be made and teams are going to have to step up to meet the demands of their insurgent players.
It bears mentioning that this movement isn’t just about using influence on social media. It is also about some of the country’s richest and most influential people, using that money and power directly to create change.
A few weeks ago, he was joined by Patrick Mahomes. The NFL’s highest paid and perhaps best player, Kansas City Chief’s QB and SuperBowl MVP, Mahomes, who just signed a $500M (!) contract, has spoken out in support of Black Lives Matter and indicated that he intends to use his money to support the cause:
I understand my platform. I’m in the middle of negotiating my next contract, to hopefully be a Kansas City Chief for a long time, but I still thought this was important enough and this was something that had to be said. It wasn’t something I could sit back on and worry about my next contract, because I needed to use my platform to help. Sometimes it’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s about doing what’s right.
What’s more, difficult conversations about social justice, racial justice, politics, and prejudice that have been initiated by athletes – and the responses to those conversations – have led to and merged with dialogue on a national level.
As confederate monuments and slave-owner monuments are being removed throughout the country, fans and corporate sponsors are revisiting the long-controversial team names – like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, and traditions like the Atlanta Braves “chop.” In 2013, Washington owner, Daniel Snyder said “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
But after its stadium’s corporate sponsor (FedEx) and several large retailers applied pressure, Washington ANNOUNCED EARLIER THIS WEEK THAT IT WAS CHANGING ITS NAME.
I like how they get to say they’re “retiring” the nickname. “Racial slur, you’ve done so much good work for us all these years. And now you get to go spend quality time with your family. Here’s a boat.”
— Drew Magary (@drewmagary) July 13, 2020
Another example of this was Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler from Georgia, who is the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA franchise, writing to WNBA leadership to oppose the decision to write of Black Lives Matter on their jerseys, instead asking them to put American Flags on their uniforms. Her message to the 80% Black league was that Black Lives Matter is “divisive” and that “we need to get politics out of sports.”
Although the WNBA has thus far said that it will not force Loeffler to sell her interest in the team – as many had called for – The response to Senator Loeffler was…strong.
Stick To Sports? Nah.
Interestingly, Loeffler’s message is a variant of the “stick to sports” phrase that has long been used to quiet athletes – and even sports media – who are speaking uncomfortable truths.
The phrase “stick to sports” (infamously connected to the death of DeadSpin) or “shut up and dribble” (infamously connected to Anne Coulter) or “don’t mix politics and my entertainment” (which can be connected to “average sports fans” everywhere) has long been used to shut down political speech by athletes.
As Zirin explains, that has become more well understood, and that’s a good thing:
It’s a way of course to silence people, to shame them into silence. It’s also directed primarily at Black athletes and there is always a racist undertone or overtone to it.
I believe that we are in a good place, because the retrograde, backward nature of the phrase is becoming more understood.
Sports media may also be changing to become more open to these larger stories – but perhaps more slowly.
We often hear of Big Sports Media – outlets like ESPN – not wanting to “be political.” (Jemele Hill losing her job at ESPN for being outspoken on social issues comes to mind). But there is also a group of sports journalists who do focus on these larger issues. People like Dave Zirin, Bomani Jones, Jemele Hill, Dan Le Batard, our team over at Good Men Project Sports, and perhaps a few others.
On the media front, as Zirin notes, there is positive change, as well as backlash:
Sports media is definitely changing. It’s also becoming more polarized as a new generation of sports people are realizing that they are going to need to know something about politics, political movements, and the internal lives of players if they are going to accurately report what’s happening. Or they can just go full reactionary. And we are certainly seeing some of that as well.
Given the polarized state of our nation, that kind of polarization in our sports media should not come as a huge surprise.
But we are most certainly evolving towards athletes participating in and helping to lead the national conversation on social issues. And as players’ influence, power, and platforms continue grow, it will surely follow that they will wield influence and have a voice in inspiring and creating change.
Photo Credit: Major League Soccer/Twitter (July 8, 2020 pre-game)