Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 31, 2020

The Sports World Speaks Up, But Will Anyone Listen?

As protests swept the country this week in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, athletes, teams, and even entire leagues lent their voices to the debate. Even as peaceful demonstrations gave way to burning and destruction, sometimes instigated by external forces from both extremes of the political spectrum, scores of players reminded fans that sports is part of our culture, not separate from it.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown drove 1,500 miles to his home state of Georgia to lead a peaceful protest march in Atlanta. The UConn women’s basketball team issued a statement through the squad’s official Twitter account which said in part, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed, and more people are becoming aware of the 400 years of oppression that black people have been subjected to in America…We are proud to be a team made up of diverse women who will never stop pushing for the most basic human rights for our people.” Social media was also the chosen avenue for statements from many others, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Odell Beckham Jr., while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a moving essay in the Los Angeles Times.

But given what we know and have all seen of Floyd’s death, the decision of white athletes to speak up has been especially important. Heisman Trophy winner and NFL number one draft pick Joe Burrow tweeted “The black community needs our help. They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.” Burrow was joined by others, including fellow NFL quarterback Carson Wentz, and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso of the New York Mets. Alonso’s Instagram post read “For the past couple of days, I’ve struggled to wrap my mind around what’s happening. I have a voice and I will not remain silent. My heart has been broken over the murder of George Floyd. I will never know what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. To anyone who faces this type of discrimination, I will fight for you and be an ally. I will always stand with you. There needs to be justice and change made for the better of humanity. Let words be our sword and unity be our armor. Take care of each other.”

Then there was the National Football League. America’s premier sports institution issued a statement attributed to commissioner Roger Goodell, which said in part, “The NFL family is greatly saddened by the tragic events across our country. The protesters’ reaction to these incidents reflects the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel…As current events dramatically underscore, there remains much more to do as a country and as a league. These tragedies inform the NFL’s commitment and our ongoing efforts. There remains an urgent need for action. We recognize the power of our platform in communities and as part of the fabric of American society. We embrace that responsibility and are committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”

The words hit all the right notes, and the promise of future action is to be applauded, provided of course that the reader has spent the last several years in some alternate universe. Because in the real world it is impossible to read the responses of the sports world to what happened in Minneapolis on Memorial Day and not think of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lonely pre-game protests against racial oppression in 2016. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem, an individual and profoundly non-violent act, looks pretty benign when set against burning police cars.

Kaepernick was effectively drummed out of the league for his silent activism, and this week’s statement by Goodell appears to be a bet that he has been utterly forgotten by fellow players and fans. The commissioner lost that gamble, as evidenced by multiple responses, one of the most eloquent of which was from Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. One of just four black or Latino head coaches in the league, Flores recounted losing friends over discussions about Kaepernick because some people in the NFL couldn’t see past the issue of “disrespecting the flag.” The Twitter post went on to note that he had not seen the same outrage from those people over the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Flores lamented those unwilling to raise their voices now and expressed the hope that “the tragedies of the last few weeks will open our hearts and minds to a better way of communicating.” If the NFL’s statement is a step in that direction, then it is a good thing. But it would sound more genuine and less like a product of the league’s marketing department if it were accompanied by an apology to Kaepernick.

One of the reasons that won’t happen is that, as Flores noted, there are those in the league and in the stands who remain hung up on the symbolism of Kaepernick’s kneeling. But there are many symbols that stand for various aspects of America, and not all of them are praiseworthy. That is inevitable in a country whose founding documents both extol the equality of man and institutionalize slavery by counting each human held in bondage as three-fifths of a person.

The convulsion of our cities is an announcement to the broader country what citizens of color already knew – that one such symbol is the image of a bad cop’s knee on a black man’s neck. What we all must face is the reality that this symbol is not from an antebellum daguerreotype but from a cellphone video. We have heard the words on many occasions, from eloquent and learned leaders. The arc of history is long, they have cautioned, before always assuring us that it bends toward justice. But this week even the most optimistic among us was forced to concede that right now the promise of that statement, the idea that however slowly, we will make inevitable progress toward a more perfect Union, is perilously hard to believe.


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