As a summer of discontent has become the fall of expectations, the sports world is speaking out in unison against injustice.
The International Olympic Committee, a notoriously rigid organization, just saw one of its most celebrated members throw a verbal Molotov cocktail at the IOC’s official stance against protests. “I have been very clear: If an athlete wishes to take a knee on a podium, then I am supportive of that,” two-time Olympic gold-medal winner Coe said Thursday during a media tour of Tokyo’s National Olympic Stadium. But Sebastian Coe, who is the head of the world governing body of track and field known as World Athletics, is just the latest in a line of sports figures who have waded into the massive wave of protests for social justice.
It’s been just over four years since Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. His gesture would embroil the nation in a ferocious debate – while effectively ending Kaepernick’s promising career.
Kaepernick was not the first athlete to suffer for his ideals. In 1967, while in the prime of his career, Muhammad Ali was thrown in jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam. A year later, African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the American Olympic team and received death threats after they thrust their black-gloved fists defiantly into the cold night at the Mexico City Games.
Overall, though, as sports became an ever bigger business, speaking out on social issues became less common among athletes because the way to make money was to remain colorless and apolitical. As Michael Jordan put it, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
But in recent years, as concerned citizens have used smartphones to document incidences of police brutality towards African Americans, sports stars have found it harder to stay silent. They have increasingly used their fame in an effort to level America’s playing fields.
In 2012, LeBron James tweeted out a photo of his then-Miami Heat team wearing hoodies to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
In 2014, five St. Louis Rams players took the field against the Oakland Raiders holding their hands up in the air in “don’t shoot” poses to support protests over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
In 2016, members of the reigning Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) champion, the Minnesota Lynx, held a news conference before a game to raise awareness of police violence after the killing of Philando Castile.
These protests did little to stem the shooting of unarmed Blacks. Then, this past May 25, came the horrifying video of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. It was the spark needed to ignite a movement. Athletes decided they could no longer, as Laura Ingraham told LeBron James, merely “shut up and dribble.”
Hunting down a quarterback suddenly seemed insignificant when Black joggers were being hunted down and killed in broad daylight. Finally, it became clear what Kaepernick’s knee on the gridiron grass was trying to tell us all along: This country has a serious problem with systemic racism and injustice, epitomized by a policeman’s knee on the neck of a helpless man.
Here is a chronological look those in sports who are telling the world that when it comes to inequality and injustice, they are done playing games.
MAY: George Floyd’s Death Changes Everything
Hours after George Floyd’s death, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr tweets: “This is murder. Disgusting. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with US????”
LeBron James tweets a photo of himself, after the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt with the caption: “STILL!!!! ???”
The Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt tells local news media: “I’ve seen the video and I think it’s disgusting…I don’t understand how that situation can’t be remedied in a way that doesn’t end in his death…”
Colin Kaepernick tweets: “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction. The cries of peace will rain down, and when they do they will land on deaf ears because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back. Rest in Power George Floyd.”
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz posted a tweet that read, in part: “Being from North Dakota, I’ve spent a large part of my life surrounded by people of similar color, so I’m never gonna act like I know what the black community goes through or even has gone through already. I’ll never know the feeling of having to worry about my kids going outside because of their skin color.”
In the first week back for the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer league, Schalke’s American midfielder Weston McKennie wears an armband bearing the words “Justice for George.”
JUNE: “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away.”
Sixteen-year-old tennis sensation Coco Gauff tells a large demonstration in her hometown of Delray Beach, Florida, “I think it’s sad that I’m here protesting the same thing that [my grandmother] did 50-plus years ago. So I’m here to tell you guys that we must first love each other no matter what…I’ve been spending all week having tough conversations, trying to educate my non-Black friends on how they can help the movement.”
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees tells Yahoo Finance, when asked about players kneeling during the anthem: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.” His comments ignite a firestorm of protest. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins responds to his teammate in a pointed Instagram video, in which he says: “Drew Brees, if you don’t understand how hurtful, how insensitive your comments are, you are part of the problem . . . Drew, unfortunately, you’re somebody who doesn’t understand their privilege. You don’t understand the potential that you have to actually be an advocate for the people that you call brothers.’
Later that day Brees has an emotional meeting with his teammates and posts an apology on Instagram.
Richard Sherman, the outspoken cornerback of the San Francisco 49ers, weighs in on Twitter saying, “The same ppl that oppressed cannot be the ones telling us how to protest. It just doesn’t work like that anymore. It worked for a long time but those days are numbered.”
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is joined by other football stars in releasing a video, “Stronger Together,” that calls on the league to issue a long overdue statement condemning racism and police brutality following Floyd’s death.
President Trump criticizes Brees in a tweet for apologizing, saying the quarterback shouldn’t have “taken back his original stance.” Brees responds via Instagram: “I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our Black communities.”
In a video posted on all of the league’s social media platforms, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goode ll finally addresses the issues that have motivated so many NFL players to speak out. “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people,” Goodell says in the video. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”
Outspoken San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich says on a Twitter video, “The best teaching moment of this most recent tragedy was the look on the officer’s face. For white people to see how nonchalant, how casual, how just every day going about his job—so much so that he could just put his left hand in his pocket wiggle his knee around a little bit to teach this person some sort of a lesson. … I think I’m just embarrassed as a white person to know that can happen — to actually watch a lynching.”
L.A. Lakers star LeBron James headlines a coalition of Black athletes and entertainers who announce the formation of More Than a Vote, a campaign in conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to address poll worker shortages and the need to combat the closure of polling stations in Black electoral districts. Having already secured the numerous National Basketball Association arenas to open up as polling centers for the November election, the organization is hoping to get other sports venues to be used in a similar fashion.
At a protest rally organized by three of his African American teammates and him, Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is arguably the face of college football, announces, “There’s three main things that I’m learning. I’m learning to listen more; I’m learning that listening is usually more valuable than talking. You learn when you listen and you begin to understand when you listen. I’m learning to try and put myself in the shoes of those who are in pain.”
Players and match officials kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as the English Premier League started its 2020 season belatedly, due to the pandemic. “Black Lives Matter” replaced the players’ names on shirts during games between Manchester City and Arsenal, and between Aston Villa and Sheffield United.
In a highly emotional Instagram essay, Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond explains why he was taking off this season, while giving up his $5.6 million salary for 2020: “Right now in baseball we’ve got a labor war. We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8 percent Black players. No Black majority team owners.”
(There are currently six minority managers in baseball, the most since 2011, and two minority GMs.)
JULY: Soccer Takes a Knee
Jonathan Irons is released from prison after serving 22 years of his 50-year sentence for a crime he did not commit, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore. The four-time WNBA champion and former MVP has taken the last two seasons off to help work on criminal justice reform.
GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler, a co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, writes to the league protesting its recent support of Black Lives Matter and the WNBA’s social justice work in general. Outraged players vow to never again mention the owner’s name in public.
In a sign of support for the Dream, WNBA players across the league wear T-shirts reading “Vote Warnock” (Loeffler’s 2020 Democratic opponent) to games during the week of August 4.
Soccer returns to the United States with its Major League Soccer Is Back tournament, and more than 100 Black MLS players raise their right fists and take a knee before the game to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement.
AUGUST: “It just shows the hate in people’s heart.”
Before a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers, Matt Dumba, a half-Filipino defenseman for the Minnesota Wild, and one of the founding members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, gives a speech on systemic racism and the importance of fighting injustice. He then becomes the first NHL player to take a knee during the U.S. national anthem.
More than a dozen Pac-12 Conference college football players release a lengthy list of demands on the new media platform The Players Tribune, under the title #WEAREUNITED. In addition to demanding health and safety protections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they call for an end to racial injustice in sports and society, guaranteed medical coverage and a profit-sharing arrangement in which 50 percent of each sport’s conference revenue would be distributed evenly among athletes. The players threaten to boycott practices and games unless their requests are met.
Lakers players arrive in Orlando for their playoff game against the Portland Trailblazers wearing red hats that look similar to MAGA caps worn by supporters of President Trump, but the text on these hats reads: “Make America
Great AgainArrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor.”
Jacob Blake, an unarmed African American, is shot seven times in the back at close range by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
NFL Commissioner Goodell apologizes to Colin Kaepernick. Speaking to Emmanuel Acho on the former NFL linebacker’s YouTube show, Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, Goodell says, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.”
After his team’s playoff win against the Dallas Mavericks, then-Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, forcefully expresses his frustration with injustice during the postgame press conference. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back . . . How dare the Republicans talk about fear. We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child. What white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over?”
The Milwaukee Bucks refuse to play their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, three days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in nearby Kenosha.
“Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action,” the team says in its statement. “So, our focus today cannot be on basketball.”
The NBA postpones that night’s other two playoff games and the league has teams vote on whether to continue the season. Both Los Angeles teams, the Clippers and the Lakers, vote to end the season. (The rest of the teams vote to continue the season so the L.A. teams resume games three days later with the rest of the league.)
Kenny Smith, one of the hosts of Inside the NBA, tells a live audience, “As a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not be here tonight. And figure out what happens after that.” He then walks off the set.
Players of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics wear white T-shirts printed with seven bullet holes on the back in honor of Jacob Blake. The league cancels all three of its games scheduled for the night.
Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who is part African American, shocks the tennis world by announcing on Twitter she will not play her semifinal match scheduled for the next day in the Western & Southern Open in Ohio. “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” her post began. “And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport, I consider that a step in the right direction.”
Players from the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds boycott their Major League Baseball game. Later that day the Seattle Mariners–San Diego Padres, and Los Angeles Dodgers–San Francisco Giants games are postponed.
Mets outfielder Dominic Smith kneels during the national anthem before his team takes on the Miami Marlins. In the postgame news conference, Smith chokes back tears as he speaks about racism in his country. ”I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care,” Smith says. “For this to just continuously happen, it just shows the hate in people’s heart. That just sucks, you know? Black men in America, it’s not easy.”
On MLB’s Jackie Robinson Day, the Mets and Marlins stand silently for 42 seconds (42 was Robinson’s number) and then walk off the field, leaving a Black Lives Matter T-shirt draped over home plate. Six other MLB games scheduled for the day are postponed.
The billionaire owner of the Real Salt Lake soccer club, Dell Roy Hansen, speaks out against the MLS postponing games. He makes his remarks on X96, a Salt Lake City radio station he owns, saying, “The disrespect is profound to me personally.”
Retorts RSL Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha: “I was brought to tears this morning as I was listening to stories of what has happened over the last few days and knowing the owner isn’t in agreement and now seeing this stuff here… I don’t want to be here because I’m not here to play for someone who isn’t here to support us.”
Later in the day, The Athletic releases an article in which nine current and former employees of the RSL organization document a toxic work environment at the club, punctuated by Hansen regularly making racist remarks. Three days later, Hansen announces he will sell the team.
SEPTEMBER: “We’ve got to do better, man.”
Fighting tears on College GameDay, ESPN football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who played at Ohio State, tells fellow analysts he is reminded of a Benjamin Franklin quote told to him by Stanford coach David Shaw:
“‘Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.’ That’s what I mean when I think… the Black community is hurting. If you’ve listened – the word empathy and compassion [comes up] over these last four months – how do you listen to these stories and not feel pain? And not want to help?”
A now-crying Herbstreit continues. “We’ve got to do better, man. We’ve got to lock arm-in-arm and be together. And in a football locker room, that stuff is gone. Those [racial] barriers are gone. We’ve got to do better.”
Before the opening game of the NFL season, the Houston Texans decide to not be on the field for the national anthem. When the team takes the field, they lock arms with the opposing players from the Kansas City Chiefs in a sign of solidarity. They are booed by many fans.
Exactly six months after Breonna Taylor’s death, defending F1 champion Lewis Hamilton wears a T-shirt commemorating Taylor before the race and when he steps onto the victory podium after winning the Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello, Italy. It reads: “ARREST THE COPS WHO KILLED BREONNA TAYLOR” on the front and “SAY HER NAME” above a photo of Taylor on the back.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP wears a shirt in tribute to the late Breonna Taylor during the F1 Grand Prix of Tuscany. (Photo: Luca Bruno – Pool/Getty Images)
Free agent NFL player and activist Eric Reid, referring to the NFL’s use of Colin Kaepernick in a league video, tweets, “What the @NFL is doing is half-hearted at best. @nflcommish has gotten comfortable saying he ‘was wrong’ as if his mere acknowledgement reconciles his admitted wrongdoing. He hasn’t even called Colin to apologize, let alone reconcile, proving this is only PR for the current business climate. As such, Roger Goodell uses video of Colin courageously kneeling to legitimize their disingenuous PR while simultaneously perpetuating systemic oppression, that the video he’s using fights against, by continuing to rob Colin of his career. It’s diabolical.”
Los Angeles Lakers player Danny Green speaks out in a news conference after a grand jury comes back with its verdict in the Breonna Taylor case. Green calls the decision a “disappointment,” and says, “Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue. We’re going to continue fighting…”
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