Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 27, 2020

Standing Tall By Standing Down

Here we are again. Like so many ritualistic proclamations of thoughts and prayers, the black squares on Instagram, the Black Lives Matter signs in windows and front yards, the June protests both peaceful and less so, have all come and gone, and here we are again. Scores of athletes, most but by no means all African American, have knelt during the national anthem or raised a fist or posted their thoughts on Twitter, and here we are again. Seven bullets in the back, and here we are again.

Wednesday’s events across the landscape of American professional sports should thus have come as no surprise, nor should the leading roles taken by NBA players have been unexpected. That’s not just because the league’s rosters are nearly 75% Black, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, but also because the NBA has long been the professional sport most open to its players expressing themselves on social and political issues.

With that background, and the geography of Kenosha being less than forty miles south of their team’s home arena, the decision of Milwaukee Bucks players to remain in their locker room as 4:00 p.m., the scheduled start time of Game 5 of their first round playoff series against the Orlando Magic came and went, now seems almost inevitable. After all, they had tried other forms of expression. The courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World, where the NBA has set up its so-called bubble in hopes of making it through the Finals without interruption from the coronavirus, were even painted with the BLM slogan, an ever present reminder to every television viewer of the importance of this cause to the league and its players. But here they were again.

What was not so certain as the minutes ticked by was the reaction of league officials. But soon the Orlando players, who had warmed up while the chairs on Milwaukee’s end of the court sat empty, exited for their own locker room. Then came word that all three games scheduled for Wednesday had been postponed, and as that news spread so did what amounted to a wildcat strike by players in other sports. At its own bubble in Bradenton, ninety minutes southwest of Orlando, the WNBA’s schedule came to a halt. The Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB franchise that shares the Bucks home city, chose to sit rather than play a home contest against Cincinnati, and soon games between the Padres and Mariners and the Giants and Dodgers were also scrubbed. Five of the six scheduled matches in Major League Soccer were added to the list, and some NFL franchises cancelled preseason practices. In New York, two-time major champion Naomi Osaka, saying “before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” announced that she would not play her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open, which was scheduled for Thursday. Not long after, the USTA halted all play on Thursday’s calendar.

Predictably, there were those who complained as many sports ground to a halt, disrupted by a virus more virulent than COVID-19, the enduring scourge of inequality and injustice. Some fans found fault with the players for not doing their job, while others lamented the intrusion of social issues onto the courts and fields of play. But while each individual must live with his or her own moral compass, surely everyone can identify some issue so central as to merit setting aside one’s daily labor. And while sports can indeed serve as a welcome diversion from everyday cares, players are not automatons. Nothing in their legal contracts with teams nor their implied ones with fans removes their rights and responsibilities as citizens. The easier course is to say and do nothing, for taking any stand is bound to alienate some. But here we are again, and eventually the easy route becomes a road to nowhere.

The broad shutdown of many sports continued into Thursday. By forcing the attention of fans onto the issue of systemic racism, the spontaneous action that began in an Orlando locker room showed the power of our sports heroes. But whether it is on Friday or over the weekend, the games will resume, a reality that would seem to illustrate the limits of that power, a reminder that even star athletes cannot change the world by their individual actions. But limitation is not impotence. More than half a century ago Robert Kennedy spoke of the “tiny ripple of hope” created by a person striking out against injustice, and how enough of those ripples would build “a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” No one should underestimate how strong those walls are. As L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, hardly a wild-eyed radical, said on Tuesday, “it’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote the slaveholder so many years ago. If Jefferson perceived the irony in those and the words he penned next given his status, he never admitted it. Down all the days since, the inherent contradiction between our nation’s eternal promise and its original sin has stressed one generation after another. And here we are again. As hundreds of players in multiple sports have made clear, we should not be talking about building a wall, but about how to start tearing some down, proving at last that those supposedly manifest truths are real, and not just empty palaver.


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