Let’s rewind for a few months. Back in August, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to protest Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. The player-driven decision occurred in the wake of Jacob Blake, a black man, being gunned down from behind by Kenosha police. The protests occurred after months of inaction regarding police brutality, centered around the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Players wore messages from “Love” and “Say her name” to “Vote” on their jerseys, knelt before the national anthem, and supported voting initiatives across the country. The NBA opened up more than half of their arenas to serve as registration-drive sites or polling locations on election day in an attempt to combat targeted voter suppression. Both the NBA and their athletes took initiative to bring the issues of racial injustice and police brutality into the national spotlight, but months of protest continued. Despite vocal support by prominent athletes ranging from Donovan Mitchell to LeBron James and Black Lives Matter focused-politicians winning elections, progress in the fight against systemic racism seemed stuck in the mud. The disappointment in policy changes, or lack thereof, culminated with no charges being pressed against the police officer who shot Jacob Blake a day before domestic terrorists laid siege upon the US capitol.
Now, you may be wondering why we are tackling this topic as a Sports Business organization. The fact is that we are living in an era where sports and politics no longer go their own, separate paths. Rather, athletes have valiantly forced their way into the political conversation. No, Laura Ingraham, LeBron James will not just “shut up and dribble.” It’s not uncommon for athletes or coaches to enter the sphere of public service after their retirement. Just look at Congressmen and former NFL players Burgess Owens (R, UT) and Collin Allred (D, TX) or senator Tommy Tuberville (R, AL), but athletes stepping up and speaking out on social justice issues presents a new phenomenon.
In the Black Lives Matter protests that swept across the country throughout the summer, professional athletes marched. Celtics star Jaylen Brown protested in Atlanta saying “First and foremost, I’m a black man and I’m a member of this community … We’re raising awareness for some of the injustices that we’ve been seeing.” Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers joined in. Tobias Harris, Jordan Clarkson, and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball participated in protests across the country. Greg Popovich spoke out against Donald Trump’s failure to acknowledge BLM’s validity. The Washington Wizards put out a statement saying “We will no longer tolerate the assassination of people of color in this country. We will no longer accept the abuse of power from law enforcement.” In the WNBA, the Atlanta Dream openly campaigned for newly elected senator Raphael Warnock, who ran against Dream owner and BLM critic Kelly Loeffler. These are only a few examples of many, but over and over again, athletes portrayed the same message: First and foremost, we are black, and then we are athletes.
In essence, athletes should be viewed like anyone else; human beings who deserve to have their voices heard. Too often we dehumanize athletes, getting caught up in their superhuman feats of athleticism and skill while pitting their fortune and influence against them. Why does their profession disqualify them from feeling emotions that anyone else could? When lawyers, doctors, or business-people attend to their community they are applauded for who they are as individuals, but suddenly when it comes to athletes we see them only as a single entity? If you are bothered when athletes choose to speak on politics because “they’re not experts”, then you should apply this same logic to yourself before you voice your opinion on sports. This double standard should not exist, as political engagement is open to anyone in this country and athletes should be afforded the opportunity to use their platform however they choose.
“In essence, athletes should be viewed like anyone else; human beings who deserve to have their voices heard. “
After the insurrection on January 6th, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers tweeted “I will say it, because I don’t think a lot of people want to. Can you imagine today, if those were all black people storming the Capitol, and what would have happened? That, to me, is a picture that’s worth a thousand words for all of us to see.” Many more statements of disbelief by other athletes followed.
At the George Floyd protests across the country approximately 14,000 people were arrested per the Washington Post. Tear gas and rubber bullets pelted protestors. A teenager murdered two protestors and was hailed as a hero by the far right. This is not to say that some of these arrests weren’t justified, but the double standard could not be more clear.
These domestic terrorists seemingly strolled into the capitol, while the national guard tear-gassed peaceful protestors for a presidential church photo-op. Videos surfaced of Capitol police opening gates for insurrectionists and grinning for selfies with the “protestors.” Supposedly, a police officer even gave the trespassers directions on how to get to Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. At the end of the day, police had arrested 13 people. What a slap in the face to any athletes demanding racial justice action. Now, let us, as Doc Rivers said, take a minute to imagine the sequence of events had this been a BLM protest. If we do this, the outrage of athletes should come as no surprise.
Donald Trump wouldn’t have hesitated to send the National Guard to quell the riot. Capitol police wouldn’t have gingerly accompanied fragile criminals down the stairs. The violent, disrespectful mob wouldn’t have ambled past police on the marble steps of the capitol after defacing the “House of the People.” These are all certainties. Five deaths are five deaths too many, but whoever thinks that a BLM protest would have been treated the same needs to take a long hard look in the mirror.
The obvious contrast between the severity of the law enforcement response shows just how much work still has to be done to address systemic racism. It is hard to imagine how discouraged, frustrated and heartbroken professional athletes must feel, after dedicating their time, effort, and heart to a more equitable society just to watch the confederate flag parade through the Capitol Rotunda. Not only does this attack on democracy shows the racism embedded in thousands of Americans, but it illustrates the precise reason for athletes’ activism. The horrifying message that they are trying to combat, namely that it is safe for a mob of white men to raid the offices of public servants whereas it is deadly for a black man to turn his back on the police. Surely, this attempted revolution will mark history books forever and act as a warning sign for future generations. Hopefully, this catastrophic security failure will spur more athletes to speak out and use their platform, growing the movement and its followers. And, ideally, this despicable violence will heighten the attention paid to athletes and their causes.
“It is hard to imagine how discouraged, frustrated and heartbroken professional athletes must feel, after dedicating their time, effort, and heart to a more equitable society just to watch the confederate flag parade through the Capitol Rotunda. Not only does this attack on democracy shows the racism embedded in thousands of Americans, but it illustrates the precise reason for athletes’ activism. “
As appalling as the actions on January 6th were, if they show anything, they show the double standard in America. They show why athletes have stepped up and fulfilled their roles as translators, ambassadors, and liaisons between their communities and their fans. And, they embody the reason why LeBron James will not just “shut up and dribble.”