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tara sullivan

They aren’t just protests: The sports world, with acts of defiance, is forcing the public to stop and take notice

Major League Soccer players boycotted five games Wednesday night, following the lead of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Across these unprecedented days, athletes have proven the adage that actions speak louder than words, the cascade of canceled games and practices doing more to reflect the gravity of this moment than words ever could.

The stunning acts of refusal that began with the Bucks declining to take the court for their NBA playoff game Wednesday — followed by the rest of the NBA, the WNBA, MLS, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, MLB teams, and NFL squads slated for the practice field — are loud enough to write their own bold-faced headlines.

They are important acts of defiance, done with purpose and intent to amplify demands for social justice, shocking enough to make the public stop and take notice.


The actions have impact, and the collective reaction to the latest police shooting of a Black man — Jacob Blake, who was hit in the back with seven bullets in Kenosha, Wis. — is fueling a new round of conversations about addressing and fixing our endemic racial imbalance.

Once again, we see sports taking the lead, much the way the NBA woke us up to the seriousness of coronavirus, with a quick, decisive suspension of the season following Rudy Gobert’s positive test snapping the rest of the country into line.

And yet this is so different. These are not lone voices of protest, but powerfully unified coalitions, ones that cross racial divides, ignore gender differences, and pay no mind to athletic contrasts. They are in this together, channeling their considerable competitive fire to defeat a common opponent, reminding us that the best victories aren’t always reflected on the scoreboard but in changing hearts and minds, too.

The NBA bubble was quiet on Thursday.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

There have been tear-filled interviews by the Mets’ Dom Smith and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers, frustration-fueled words from the budding tennis star Osaka, gratitude for support and understanding from old friend Mookie Betts, anger and frustration from leading voice LeBron James.


“It’s definitely different; I think it’s historic,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the 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 son of original Celtic and onetime Knicks coach Joe Lapchick — whom he once saw burned in effigy for signing New York’s first Black player — Lapchick has devoted his life’s work to fighting for social justice. For him, the four years since Colin Kaepernick rocked the world on bended knee have been incredibly moving, filling the 75-year-old activist with hope that such athletes will no longer be left on an island of personal risk but find safety in numbers.

“We’ve never had a league and its Players Association make a decision like they did to cancel games and the dominoes that fell right after that with other sports,” he said. “To me, this is the most dramatic use of sports as a tool for social change moment since almost 50 years ago.

“You’d have to go back to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics in Mexico City or Muhammad Ali refusing to fight in Vietnam to find something I think could have as dramatic an impact as what we’re seeing now.

“The drama of Carlos and Smith and Ali — Ali almost went to prison, Tommie and John didn’t get a job for seven years — they were acting alone and paid tremendous consequences. Today we have groups of athletes, teams and leagues and Players Associations standing together.


“We’re at a new level today.”

The importance of such unity cannot be overstated or undersold. But nor should it be misunderstood as some brand of groupthink that calls for immediate dismissal. There are real human beings behind these decisions, real hurting hearts behind these emotions, real men and women who do not want to pop up in our news feeds as entertainers only; they want to be recognized as multidimensional people determined to use the platform provided by sports for causes they believe in.

Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis of the Mets walk off the field prior to the start of Thursday's game.Mike Stobe/Getty

When the NBA decided Thursday it would stay in its playoff bubble and continue toward crowning a champion, it did so with the intent of continuing a conversation, too.

Sports has that power.

“I think more people pay attention to sports than probably any other part of our society,” Lapchick said. “Television, or however you are consuming sports, we are interested in it. It’s unusual when sports does something this dramatic. It gets your attention.”

Lapchick cited a recent Nielsen study that shows the movement in how fans see athlete activism, from the largely negative reactions to Kaepernick four years ago to a survey that now says 70 percent of fans polled “indicate teams and leagues should support athlete protests and initiatives on race.”

We heard the same from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, whose recent admission that he should have paid as much attention to Kaepernick’s motive as he did to his delivery is stunning when compared with how little he had to say back when President Trump wanted anyone who dared to kneel during the anthem immediately fired.


“That opened everything up,” Lapchick said. “I think ironically [Trump] infused or breathed life into athlete activism. I’m not sure it would have happened so quickly. The Black athletes, the white ally athletes, they raised that powerful voice that has not been muted since then.

“I don’t think it will be muted. Athletes who’d been asked about injuries, whether they could play, if they could make the championship game, now they’re being asked about serious social-justice issues.

“It’s so good to see them being viewed as multidimensional humans and not unidimensional athletes.”

They spoke Wednesday, they are speaking now, and they will keep on speaking until they are heard.

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