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Dismantling the systems that uphold racism in America has been a fight Black people have taken on for centuries.
With the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others at the hands of the law, there’s been amplified attention on this movement from media organizations to major companies around the world. We’ve seen heavy-hitters in nearly every field react with donations and statements of solidarity, while some have opted to stay silent. Professional athletes have amassed broad audiences due to their amazing talents, and throughout history, we’ve seen sports emerge as an effective outlet for activism and social justice awareness.
Many times, it’s not necessarily the most grand actions that are needed to contribute to a movement. Someone like Muhammad Ali, who made incredible sacrifices at the peak of his career as an athlete, became a symbol for the civil rights movement in the 1960s — and receiving support from his peers was imperative.
In 1967, stars like Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabaar) and Bill Russell got together in Cleveland to support Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. That’s solidarity. More recently, think about in 2014, when NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in remembrance of Eric Garner — using their voices on social media, as well as pre and post-game interviews to shed light on the incident. Whether it’s a subtle act to bring awareness to a wider audience or a more direct action pushing for new legislation, athletes have influence that has shown to be extremely impactful when used for the right reasons.
How does this look in 2020? Let’s run through a few recent occurrences in the sports world.
Over the years, leagues like the NBA have worked diligently to align with their players, but in direct juxtaposition, a league like the NFL seems to consistently be exposed for how they deal with racial issues brought up by Black athletes. Colin Kaepernick is the most glaring example, as someone who was essentially punished by the league for standing up for what he believed. Even recently, it took for a player-led video featuring star players like Odell Beckham Jr., Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley and more for the league to even acknowledge how they’ve mishandled players who chose to address the oppression of Black people in America.
Moreover, Drew Brees was asked about his thoughts in regards to players kneeling during the national anthem. His incredibly misinformed response — that he has since apologized for and acknowledged as lacking compassion — made many wonder how an athlete who spends so much of his life with his Black teammates can be so off base. The criticism that Brees received from fellow players, media and fans led to him making an intentional effort to use his platform to educate his audience on these racial issues.
Whether or not we look at this as genuine or just a way to save face publicly, the outcome and public dialogue that it sparked led to the spread of more information. The responsibility to educate people of the systematic racism that our country is built on doesn’t lie on Black people. With a foundation based in white supremacy, white people will need to acknowledge what truly has been taking place and do the work on their end. Athletes stepping in and using their voices is so important because it’s a way to continue to bring awareness at an incredibly wide scale. Entertainment — whether it be music, film or athletics — transcend cultures, reaching people all over the world.
Nascar, a predominantly white association, also recently announced that they would be banning Confederate flags from their speedways. Driver Bubba Wallace, the first full-time Black driver in the Cup Series since the early 1970s, announced he’d have a Black Lives Matter decal for a race.
“I think by running this branding on our car, putting the hashtag out there, bringing more awareness to it, it lines up with the videos that we had put out as NASCAR. Listening and learning. Educating ourselves. So people will look up what this hashtag means. And hopefully get a better understanding.” — Bubba Wallace
Since then, he’s seen some pushback — with a noose being found in his garage stall — while another driver sported a “Back The Blue” car in direct response. Wallace has made it clear that these acts will by no means stop him from standing for what he believes in — and Nascar is right there supporting him.
In the WNBA, you have extraordinary women like Maya Moore and Renee Montgomery who won’t be competing next season, as both will be focusing on important societal issues. Moore made her decision public at the top of the year when she announced that she’d be sitting for the second straight season to push for the release of an unlawfully arrested Missouri man. Montgomery will be using her time to continue the momentum built in the past month.
After much thought, I’ve decided to opt out of the 2020 WNBA season. There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community. Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight but I do feel that now is the time and Moments equal Momentum. Lets keep it going!— Renee Montgomery (@itsreneem_) June 18, 2020
Representing the NBA, seeing the Wizard’s Bradley Beal and John Wall lead protests in D.C, and young stars like Jalen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon joining protests in their communities has been amazing. With the season’s restart on the horizon, there has been a lot of conversation surrounding whether returning to action would be a distraction, or if players can effectively use the return to further amplify awareness of the current movement.
With Brooklyn Nets superstar Kyrie Irving at the helm, there is a growing list of players who are a bit hesitant about returning to play. In a statement to The Athletic, Lakers center Dwight Howard, in support of Kyrie stated, “Our main objective is to raise awareness and gain transparency...Many of our fellow players are afraid to voice their concerns and are continuing to follow along with what they believe they have to.”
Lakers' Dwight Howard in statement to @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium: "Our main objective is to raise awareness and gain transparency...Many of our fellow players are afraid to voice their concerns and are continuing to follow along with what they believe they have to." pic.twitter.com/dfTlSPBwpV— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 17, 2020
Rockets guard Austin Rivers shared a much different take, feeling that the return would only be beneficial toward Black Lives Matter causes. He said:
“We can do both. We can play and we can help change the way Black lives are lived. I think we have to! But canceling and boycotting a return doesn’t do that in my opinion. Guys want to play and provide and help change!”
Austin Rivers on the Kyrie/NBA situation pic.twitter.com/L0dwoD7c6h— NBA Retweet (@RTNBA) June 13, 2020
Although we’re seeing these athletes present alternate directions, they are working toward the same goal. Both arguments are valid, regardless of the side you lean more on, and that’s the beautiful part. These Black athletes want their voices to be heard, and whatever direction they end up taking, that’s certainly going to happen.
LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s UNINTERRUPTED platform, which pushes the slogan “More Than An Athlete,” embodies what this is all about. It’s inspiring when you see guys like Rose and James open up schools in their communities, as well as countless foundations.
Even thinking back to the ways that Venus and Serena Williams took a stand to address the double standards in tennis. There are so many ways to make change by just simply speaking out. The legacy that athletes leave behind involves so much more than how great they were at their respective sport, but also how they inspired people and how they use their platform to help create a better society. The athletes today are stepping up more than ever, and it’s inspiring to see how we can all work together in the fight for true change.