The verbal crutch of “stick to sports” isn’t available right now, not with the COVID-19 pandemic making it certain we don’t have any sports to stick to. But to the holdouts who remain, to the last lazy thinkers who somehow believe it’s OK to demand that professional athletes show us nothing more than what they do while in uniform, now is the time to rethink an outmoded, unhelpful position.
This is the new age of athlete as activist, and all across our nation, in cities big and small, from faces white or Black, voices male or female, we are hearing our athletes speak out. We are watching them act up. And if we are willing, we are feeling their anger and pain. If we are open, we are understanding their purpose and plan. If we are ready, we are respecting their willingness to stand on the front lines of history.
Stick to sports? No chance. Athlete voices have never been louder.
More than ever, our sporting heroes are leading the way for social justice, taking the platform their fame provides and using it to amplify issues that matter. In these awful days of unrest since the death of unarmed Black man George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the sports stars among us are more visible than ever, idled from their regular jobs but activated to demand change.
They are Jaylen Brown, driving 15 hours to join the protesters in Atlanta. They are his Celtics teammates Marcus Smart, Enes Kanter, and Vincent Poirier joining protests in Boston. They are Udonis Haslem, speaking up at a rally in Florida. They are Seth Towns, detained by police for participating in an Ohio protest. They are Stephen Jackson, speaking up in Minneapolis for a childhood friend. They are Karl-Anthony Towns, showing up at Jackson’s side despite his mother’s recent death from COVID. They are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, penning a moving letter to the Los Angeles Times.
They are Zach and Julie Ertz, mourning Floyd’s death via Twitter. They are Carson Wentz, also posting online, the three expressing support for the Black community while owning up to ignorance as to what it is like to live under the constant fear of systemic racism. They are Tom Brady, with an Instagram tribute to Floyd.
They are LeBron James, posting side-by-side pictures of Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, asking, “Do you understand now?” They are Michael Jordan, maybe the most apolitical athlete of them all, releasing a statement that said, “I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”
They are us, and we are them. No longer should anyone utter such insults as “shut up and dribble.”
Instead, we should welcome these actions as pathways to change. We should recognize that seeing the entirety these athletes makes them easier to root for, not harder. We should look to sports not because they are a distraction from things we don’t want to think or talk about, but because they offer a powerful reflection of behaviors we should all aspire to display: the meritocracy of making a roster, the teamwork, the bond of fighting together, the shared purpose, all of it unrelated to skin color.
These are values we need now, and there are no better examples than from the athletes among us.
There was a time when sports helped lead social change, from Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier to Muhammad Ali protesting the draft and the Vietnam war, but that era, the mid to late 20th century, waned as the economic impact and power of sports waxed.
Across the 1980s and through the next two decades, there was demonstrably less interest by athletes in risking the wrath of a jersey-wearing, ticket-buying, endorsement-watching public. Yet it certainly feels now as if the pendulum has swung again, and athletes are taking their fights public.
They are Megan Rapinoe, carrying the banner for pay equity in US soccer. They are Nick Saban, the most powerful college football coach in the country, writing an emotional plea to his Alabama base that expressed shock and sadness at the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, noting “we’re at an important moment for our country” in the fight against social injustice.
They are Brian Flores, the first (and one of the few) NFL coaches to decry the hypocrisy inherent in silence over these recent deaths compared with the outrage over the pariah Kaepernick. They are the Minnesota Lynx, wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts en masse back when Eric Garner made that phrase so tragically public, before it would be uttered in vain again by Floyd. They are James and his Miami Heat teammates wearing black hoodies in memory of Trayvon Martin.
Think back to four years ago, when the ESPY awards were held amid ongoing racial tension, back when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were dead by police guns and five Dallas police officers had been killed in retaliation. ESPN handed the opening of its normally jubilant show to four tuxedoed athletes. Standing side by side, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and James delivered a decidedly non-sports message.
“Tonight is a celebration of sports, celebrating our accomplishments and our victories,” Anthony began. “But in this moment of celebration, we asked to start the show tonight this way, the four of us talking to our fellow athletes with the country watching. Because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America.
“The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us. The system is broken. The problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”
Yet here we are. When will we listen?