WOULDN’T IT BE great if sports were completely devoid of racial or political ramifications? If we could just watch (or play in) a game without worrying about society’s other problems?
Sports are supposed to be our least polarizing activity. Athletes come from all races and backgrounds, and the games should be a meritocracy, where the fastest, strongest and smartest succeed.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The nationwide weekend protests over the disgraceful killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer (since fired and charged with third-degree murder) stemmed from the exact issue Colin Kaepernick raised three years ago.
Kaepernick was largely castigated as un-American—and eventually blackballed from the NFL—for taking a knee during the pregame national anthem to protest mistreatment of minorities by police officers. Then comes video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s throat during an arrest until he died. You couldn’t make up that kind of irony.
Even if the president hadn’t called Kaepernick (and other activist players) “SOBs,” and if the vice president hadn’t made a show of walking out of a game in which other players peacefully knelt, we’d still have racism. This country was largely founded on (and funded by) slavery, and when the founding fathers wrote that “all men are created equal,” they meant all white men—not blacks or Asians or even women.
When peaceful protests like Kaepernick’s don’t work, the demonstrations tend to get more urgent. And while there’s no excuse for the looting and property destruction that went on over the weekend—even if much of it came from outside forces looking to stir up division—it’s easy to understand the frustration that broke out everywhere from Minneapolis to Salt Lake City, one of the least diverse U.S. localities you can find.
If not for the coronavirus, sports could serve as a comfortable diversion, as they so often do. But most of the games have been put on hold for the past two months.
And as the Kaepernick controversy showed, sports are hardly immune from racism. Just last week, the NFL announced tweaks to the “Rooney Rule” to force teams to interview more minority candidates for head coach, coordinator and general manager vacancies. A proposal to bribe teams that hire minorities with higher draft picks was tabled.
Observers of a certain age can still remember when the idea of a black quarterback was considered preposterous. It took 22 Super Bowls before Doug Williams became the first African American to start and win—ironically, with the same Washington franchise that was the NFL’s last to integrate.
Athletes and coaches are now largely judged by their achievements, but they’re hardly immune from racism. Tennis star James Blake was tackled and falsely arrested on a New York sidewalk, and Jaylan Butler, the only member of Eastern Illinois University’s swim team, said a policeman recently put a gun to his head after he wandered away from the team bus.
We’ve seen LeBron James and many other prominent African-American athletes take to social media to protest the death of Lloyd and too many other minorities to count. So have many big-name coaches, who deal with athletes of all races, nationalities and economic backgrounds.
That’s a start. One of the most eloquent posts, though, came from Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is white.
Lawrence wrote on Twitter: “There has to be a shift in the way of thinking. Rational has to outweigh irrational. Justice must outweigh injustice. Love must outweigh hate. If you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and you don’t like how it feels that’s when you know things need to change.”
Former Virginia basketball star Kyle Guy, who is white but whose wife is an African American, posted a similarly earnest video on Twitter. Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle has also addressed the issue thoughtfully.
Sports can lead society, and it would be ideal if the most prominent and outspoken white stars—Tom Brady, Mike Trout, Aaron Rodgers, Phil Mickelson—were similarly vocal.
At this point, if you’re not livid about the state of racism in America, you’re not helping.