Some things I care about:
▪ Said it before and I’ll say it again: Athletes’ voices have never been louder. And one of the most powerful unified platforms continues to be the Players Coalition. Co-founded in 2017 by former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin and Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, the group is built on three pillars: police and community relations, criminal justice reform and education, and economic advancement.
That first pillar continues to take center stage as the nation grapples with the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and the debate that took over the floor of the House Judiciary Committee hearings Wednesday continues to extend throughout the sports community.
More than 1,400 figures from the sporting world, including current athletes, former athletes, and current and former executives, and encompassing the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, signed a Players Coalition letter to Congress in support of the Ending Qualified Immunity Act, which would eliminate qualified immunity for government officials, including law enforcement. The bill was introduced last week by Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) and Justin Amash (L-Michigan) and if passed, presumably would affect the prosecution of Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota police officer charged in Floyd’s death.
“We are tired of conversations around police accountability that go nowhere,” the letter said, “and we have engaged in too many ‘listening sessions’ where we discuss whether there is a problem of police violence in this country. There is a problem. The time for debate about the unchecked authority of the police is over; it is now time for change.”
This is the second time in two months the Coalition released such a letter, addressing one May 8 to Attorney General William Barr asking that the FBI and the Department of Justice investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the Georgia man who was shot and killed while jogging. With a broad spectrum of voices behind it — Wednesday’s signees included NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Joe Burrow, Alex Smith, and Baker Mayfield — this is a chorus of change that grows louder, and stronger, by the day.
▪ So Shaquille O’Neal had a message for the Saints earlier this week, emphasizing unity in the face of division. Good message, one that makes sense in the wake of quarterback Drew Brees’s recent comments conflating kneeling during the national anthem with disrespect for the American flag.
When so many of Brees’s own teammates reacted with immediate anger and frustration that Brees could continue to miss the point of the form of protest Colin Kaepernick originated four years ago, the risk of a divided locker room was not just possible, but likely.
So, yes, it was a good message. But the right intention hit the wrong target.
Both ESPN and NBC reported Shaq saying this during his appearance at a virtual team meeting: “They’re going to try to divide you, just like they divided us with the Lakers! Me and Kobe [Bryant], we had a great thing going, but the media divided our team. We could have won five more championships! Stay strong. Don’t let the media divide you! Don’t let social media divide you!”
This is not the media’s fault. It’s not Twitter’s fault. It’s not Yahoo’s fault or the Internet’s fault.
What is happening with the Saints is a direct result of the words Brees said, not the way in which they were delivered, or the fact that they were reported at all. Media reports of dissension happen when there is actual dissension. Diverting the argument from the existence of a problem to the coverage of said problem only serves to obfuscate what truly matters and further silences the voices that need to be heard.
No doubt Shaq regrets how some of the alpha-male conflicts he and Bryant waged in Los Angeles played out, but blaming the media for how those problems festered is an easy way out. The Saints, to their credit, seem prepared to take the hard way out, with Brees’s ensuing apologies, and more importantly his stated desire to listen and learn from teammates, forging a path to healing the rifts.
▪ As athlete voices go, Olympians are among the most underserved, beholden as they are to funding streams, training opportunities, and labyrinthine levels of bureaucracy. The USOPC has proven over and over again it is less interested in being an advocate for athletes than a protector of its own interests, and its recent lack of global leadership at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic only proved how toothless the organization has become.
But CEO Sarah Hirshland did get this one right, announcing this week the creation of “an athlete-led group to challenge the rules and systems in our own organization that create barriers to progress, including your right to protest.”
Hirshland pointed to hundreds of conversations with Black athletes, admitting “for decades you have spoken about equality and unity and sacrificed your moment on the podium to call for change. And we have failed to listen and tolerated racism and inequality. I am sorry. You deserve better.”
It’s about time.
▪ One of my favorite moments of speaking up came from budding tennis star Coco Gauff, the 16-year-old Floridian who addressed a peaceful protest in her hometown of Delray Beach, Fla.
“I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing that [my grandmother] did 50-plus years ago,” she said in a video posted on her Twitter feed. Gauff’s maternal grandmother integrated her high school tennis team in 1962.
“So I’m here to tell you guys that we must first love each other no matter what. We must have the tough conversations with my friends. I’ve been spending all week having tough conversations, trying to educate my non-Black friends on how they can help the movement.”
Gauff’s run to the fourth round of Wimbledon last year may have awakened the world to her burgeoning athletic talent, but judging by her poise and wisdom amid these troubling times, her influence may go well beyond sports.
▪ Golf fans, pay attention: The field at the Travelers Championship June 25-28 in Connecticut (TPC River Highlands) gets more impressive by the day, with Wednesday’s additions of fifth-ranked Dustin Johnson and Jason Day making it six of the top eight ranked players in the fold. Already committed were Rory McIlroy (No. 1), Brooks Koepka (No. 3), Justin Thomas (No. 4), Patrick Cantlay (T7), and Patrick Reed (T7), as well as Bubba Watson and Bryson DeChambeau.
▪ Late, but still worth mentioning: For all the fun of The Match 2, when Tom Brady showed us his vulnerability both on the golf course and in choosing the proper pants, the most impactful moment for me came from someone who wasn’t there.
Broadcaster Ernie Johnson would have loved to call the action around Brady, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, and Phil Mickelson, but because of the pandemic and the precarious health of his son, he chose not to.
His explanation was stirring.