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Tara Sullivan

When sports come back, what will athletes’ protests look like?

The NFL at first allowed players to protest during the national anthem, then didn't allow it.
The NFL at first allowed players to protest during the national anthem, then didn't allow it.Stephen Brashear

The faces of sports are back, if not in the way we are accustomed to. Pushed to the background by the COVID-19 pandemic, the athletes who’d been idled have begun to emerge in the public eye. But what we are hearing is not about the imminent return of the games they play, but about what is going on in the country in which they play them.

As more and more of those voices speak up in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, as voices of outrage and protest grow louder and more unified, encompassing athletes, teams, leagues, and executives from sports, races, and genders across the spectrum, there is an obvious collision on the horizon.

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What will these athletes do when they get back on the field, or back on the court? Will they bring their demonstrations of protest with them?

“If they continue to do it, and I have a strong feeling they will, we’re talking about the role of sports and athletes’ voices helping to sustain and make this not a moment but something that is different,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, chair of the University of Central Florida’s DeVos Sport Business Management Program, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice.

The question then becomes one of reception: Will owners and managers be more inclined to support players’ actions, will fans be more open to applauding them? This will be the truest test yet of how, or if, the conversation has changed since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem, if those who were so enraged by the form of protest might now be able, or even just willing, to understand the nature of it instead.

In these awful, painful days since Floyd died with officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, there will be no more opportune time to create meaningful dialogue, to foster actual change. If President Trump believes, as he proclaimed this week, in the right of peaceful protest, then why the ugly, divisive demands to fire all those “sons of bitches” who followed Kaepernick’s lead?

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Enes Kanter hasn't hesitated to speak out about injustice and oppression over the course of his career.
Enes Kanter hasn't hesitated to speak out about injustice and oppression over the course of his career.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The NFL already delivered a loud verdict on Kaepernick’s kneeling, drumming the former 49ers quarterback out of the league for good, collusion recently confirmed in former league official Joe Lockhart’s CNN editorial in which he wrote, “No teams wanted to sign a player — even one as talented as Kaepernick — whom they saw as controversial, and, therefore, bad for business.”

But what the NFL never did was actually solve anything, first allowing protest, then not allowing it, then pushing it into the locker room where no one could see it, a move akin to applying the proverbial Band-Aid to the gaping wound.

The Kaepernick debate reached nearly every corner of American dialogue anyway, pitting the form of the protest against its content, arguing the freedom to express the opinion against paying the price for doing so, challenging the right of free speech versus the responsibility to an employer.

As Drew Brees continued to prove with comments Wednesday, there are those who will never, under any circumstance, condone the duration of the anthem as a time for protest. But perhaps, unlike Brees seemed able to grasp, the right to define those protest parameters could apply to everyone, not just those who tie the anthem to support for the military.

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When there are real people dying on the streets, the NFL should know better than to die on this hill. Kaepernick’s knee was never the threat to anyone that Chauvin’s was to Floyd.

Will we see athletes continue to follow the lead of Colin Kaepernick?
Will we see athletes continue to follow the lead of Colin Kaepernick?EPA

But now, with them both in mind, we hear from someone such as Jaguars owner Shad Khan, a Trump supporter, who wrote in an open letter Wednesday, “Racism, in all its forms, will kill. It kills people, it kills communities, it kills dreams, it kills hope. For many Americans, now is the moment. Never has that been clearer.”

With them both in mind, we hear from normally reticent Bruins star Patrice Bergeron, who released a statement that said, in part, “The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, it made me realize that by not speaking up on the matter, and not using my voice as a professional athlete, it’s in fact allowing racism to fester and continue. Silence is not an option for me anymore.

“I realize that I will never truly understand the fear, pain, and suffering the Black community has endured. As a white man I have always tried to live by respect and equality, but I also acknowledge my privileges. I am disappointed in myself that it took this long for me to truly open my eyes.”

These are the sentiments that make Lapchick sense a coming change. At 74, with a lifetime of social justice activism at his back, with an image of his father hanged in effigy on his lawn for daring to sign the Knicks’ first Black player, with a deep understanding of the intersection of race, culture, and sports, this moment is real.

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“Several things give me hope,” he said. “This generation of millennials and Gen Z are different, more compassionate, more concerned, more open to listening to someone different than themselves. Then, with cameras, phones, and technology, you can’t hide from what we can now see.

“And the third is that athletes are activists, who represent the most diverse working population in the country with the possible exception of the military. Their voices will continue to be amplified.”

Sports has historically done its part providing lasting images of protest, those moments that are powerful enough to not look away, meaningful enough to elicit reaction, timely enough to cement a place in time. A fist raised to the sky. A hood pulled low over the head.

A knee dropped to the ground.

“It’s interesting because what we’ve been talking about in the past few weeks and visually seeing is that kneeling has taken on a different context,” Lapchick said. “Kneeling is now standing in solidarity with anti-racist activities and victims of racism. I think the act of kneeling will be even more powerful if used in the world of sport.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.