In the past weeks, months and years, there has been a shocking number of reports about young black men killed by police officers. There have been two separate incidents this past week, first in Tulsa, Okla., and then in North Carolina, the latter sparking major protests in Charlotte.
Another trend gaining attention is that of professional athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem before games. Started by San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the NFL preseason, this silent protest against the anthem has gained popularity among NFL and WNBA players — even among high school students throughout the United States. This protest raises the question of what role athletes play in the midst of this fight for justice and how they can effectively cause change.
By now, everyone — sports fan or not — knows about the Black Lives Matter movement. After George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 for killing black teenager Trayvon Martin, the movement has gained momentum over the years in the wake of police brutality that has left dozens of black men dead.
There have been demonstrations demanding justice from the courts to indict the cops involved and pleas urging governments to alter police officer training. Athletes like LeBron James have been active in the movement since the beginning. James posted a photo of himself and his teammates wearing hoodies in honor of Martin and has not stopped speaking out since.
Not all athletes have been so ready to respond, but in response to two other successive killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota this summer, many more have stepped up and expressed their frustration with the current situation.
For example, Carmelo Anthony made an Instagram post calling all athletes to take a political stand on the situation regardless of the consequences: “We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose [sic] gonna look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard.”
Even Michael Jordan, notorious for his apolitical attitude throughout his career and beyond, released a statement that was published on ESPN’s The Undefeated in July. He said he was “deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement” and “angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers.” However, many of these words, though moving, were simply words.
More recently, the ESPY Awards saw James, Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade discuss the situation in their opening speech. Anthony said although these problems are not new, “the urgency to great change is at an all-time high.”
Wade implored fellow athletes, urging that “it’s on us to challenge each other to do even more than what we already do in our communities.” Finally, James closed the speech by referencing Muhammad Ali and calling on all professional athletes to step up: “To do his legacy any justice … we all have to do better.”
Athletes do have a profound influence on society, and if they are able to unite and affect change, they should. This speech again was only words, but perhaps because it directly addressed all athletes on a major athletic platform, it will lead to greater action within the professional ranks.
It is also important to note that this onus is on all athletes. An article posted July 8 by Dave Zirin in The Nation made the significant point that it should not be the sole responsibility of black athletes to speak out against these injustices: “If white athletes truly care about their black and brown teammates … then they should take some of the damn weight.”
Among the six notable athletes he cited for taking a stand on the recent events, only one, Huston Street, was white. Professional athletes, barring individual sports like boxing and golf, are all members of a team. Being a team means standing by one another no matter the circumstances or consequences.
Many of today’s athletes could take a page from Street’s playbook.
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