Pearl River You no longer need to read the sports pages to see what’s happening with athletes, because their actions are now turning up on the front page.
The NBA playoffs may be happening in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, but these professional basketball players are not sequestered from the news in the rest of the country as if they were a jury in a capital murder case. They very much are attuned to the time and temperature of the country. When Jacob Blake was shot multiple times by a policeman in Kenosah, Wisconsin, many were horrified, and they took action. The Milwaukee Bucks may be one of the favorites in the tournament, but they led the way by refusing to take the court for fifteen minutes as their opponent waited for them. They did so in protest of yet another shooting in the state they represent.
The NBA then canceled the game. NBA players in other games seeing and hearing of the Bucks’ actions, also pulled out of their games, leading to more wildcat strikes by these unionized millionaire workers. That wasn’t all. Players in the Women’s NBA also stopped playing, leading to more cancellations. Some tennis players refused to take the court. Some professional soccer matches were cancelled when their players, largely white, also refused to perform in protest. Other games have been played since then with protest jerseys and mass kneeling, but the players have spoken loudly and clearly with their feet, not just their voices and symbols, that the brutality by police against Black men and women must end. Importantly, they shared the front page with the family affair in the Republican National Convention trying to link protests with crime.
Past this moment, we may be marking a milestone, not just for sports, but for the culture itself. The day of the jock maybe ending. The day when men and women in team, and even individual, sports can be oblivious to their community and what is happening in the country may finally be passing. Certainly, there have always been individuals who listened to a different drummer like Muhammed Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a Black power salute at the Olympics, but there were also the Michael Jordan’s who once essentially said, never mind, it’s all about the dollar. Hear, Jordan now, and he’s singing a different tune. LeBron James, Steph Curry, and hundreds of others have spoken out clearly, and Jordan now follows their lead even from another generation and a position in league ownership.
Drew Brees, the star quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, is a case study in the how jocks and the old jock culture can be wrongfooted in the swiftness of the cultural change in sports. Reacting to the George Floyd’s killing and the Black Lives Matter protests, Brees claimed he still couldn’t knell and had to respect the flag. He quickly retracted after players in his own and many other teams told him he “didn’t get it.” It was never about the flag or the armed forces, but always about ending police brutality and racism. He apologized and got right, understanding he has to lead a team, and the team has changed ahead of him, so he had to catch up.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the NFL, if and when, it ever starts its season, and even within the NCAA college teams still willing and able to play. Who knows, but there’s no doubt they will have learned something from Brees’ mistake.
Regardless, this will leech down, and it makes a difference. Teams are about unity, and few are going to be willing to be bastions of racism when their brothers and sisters are living in fear and pain. The coming generation of players will understand that they can’t not have a position on these issues, and that they have to be ready to take a stand for justice, not pretend that sports is somehow a barrier island where politics and culture are on the other side of the seawall. Nothing is going to stop this flood, or protect the players that don’t learn to navigate the change.