I have a confession: I am struggling to see a path forward from this as protests and clashes of violence enter—what day is it? And by this I mean the outrage over the death of George Floyd. And that of Ahmaud Arbery. And Breonna Taylor. Oh, and Tamir Rice. Wait, also Philando Castile.
You get it.
If you are not devastated, outraged, or feeling some combination of the two then you’ve got something else coursing through your veins and it’s equal parts Clorox and Hydroxychloroquine.
I am not here to draw a correlation between those who vote for a certain orange-tinged president and those whose stance on how athletes should behave is synopsized by “Shut up and dribble”.
Folks, that line draws itself.
I’m writing because I have to wonder, “What is the role of sports in this?”
I’m not even talking about games as a means of escapism. I’m saying this after watching countless Food Network and HGTV shows and feeling as if I’ve exhausted everything remotely interesting on Netflix. This wasn’t just to fill time during the COVID pandemic, but it was a holding pattern until sports would begin again.
And then Ahmaud Arbery happened. And Breonna Taylor. And lastly George Floyd.
I am proud that Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores stepped up to make his feelings known on the deaths of George, Taylor, and Arbery. That is great. Just about every league, team, and numerous players have issued some kind of statement. But what else is there but words? Words carry so far. There’s been action. But action has only taken things so far. What’s left?
Statement from Head Coach Brian Flores. pic.twitter.com/dJOdHHSvNT
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) May 29, 2020
Is this the contribution of sports? Athletes have used their fame to call attention to injustices.
There was the Jesse Owens fist raise. The Jackie Robinson breaking of the color barrier. The Bill Russell and Boston—well, Boston. Fast forward to today with the likes of LeBron James and Kenny Stills. They have been activists in their own way by parlaying their fame to draw attention to social causes. They are simultaneously modeling the way and clearing a path.
Athletes like LeBron have maneuvered themselves to not just be in a position to make contributions to their communities but to be role models for all kids. He’s been a model for carrying one’s self off the court and parlaying his talents to create something of significance. LeBron is an industry. But that still doesn’t make him immune.
Then there’s the retort, “Well they’re millionaires”. As if the money that they make is enough to shield them from the pain of seeing someone who looks like them, killed in a cruel and apathetic manner. Like us, they probably watched in shock as a man pleaded for his life while an officer pressed his entire body weight down through his knee and onto the man’s neck. The light in the man fades slightly with each passing second until it is finally snuffed out. The officer does this all while wearing an emotionless expression on his face. Somehow money might not have saved George Floyd at that moment. Or maybe it would have. Who knows?
Money isn’t everything though many believe that it is a means of influence. Perhaps it doesn’t. It brings me back to a spot on point by the great Chris Rock regarding rich and wealthy, back in 2004.
“Shaq is rich. The white man who signs his checks, is wealthy.”
So much for money.
What is the solution? I don’t know. But each advancement is followed by an even greater retreat.
.@MiamiHEAT forward Udonis Haslem spoke at a protest in his hometown of Miami on Sunday.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 31, 2020
The sad truth is that despite their notoriety and money, very little has advanced in terms of race relations. My feeling is that with every significant step forward there has been a couple steps back.
Colin Kaepernick used his fame and took a knee in protest over police brutality and racism. He gained attention and started a conversation and movement that inspired other players, like Kenny Stills, to do the same. One step forward. Outraged NFL fans lost their minds and threatened to boycott NFL games resulting in the league mandating that players stand during the national anthem or risk a fine. Two steps back. Kaepernick continues to donate his money and his time to various charities and causes, extending the life of his activism and thus impacting various groups and communities. One step forward. In the past few seasons there were teams with varying degrees of need for an experienced quarterback either because their incumbent is suspect or simply as an insurance policy. Despite holding workouts to prove that he still has skills, Kaepernick has still not caught onto a pro team. Two steps back.
It was 12 years ago—though it might feel like four lifetimes ago—that we had the first black president. One major step forward. It also gave rise to a number of right wing extremists and militias as a result of his election. Two steps back. It was eight years ago that Obama won re-election. One step forward. Then the current occupant of the White House was elected president and gave rise to even more extremist groups. Two steps back.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) June 1, 2020
This painful choreography is going to continue and it’s going to take time. Despite such gains, they did nothing to quell the racism and hate.
The sad reality of the two examples above is that as more time goes by, Kaepernck’s window will slowly close simply because he’ll be older and his physical tools will diminish. Perhaps teams are just hoping for time to naturally close the door on him and are then bailed out of having to dodge questions about whether he is worthy of a look. As time goes by there will be more rhetoric criticizing and falsifying details about Barack Obama and these will be taken as “truths” despite facts pointing to the contrary. The sad reality is that this will only breed a new generation of believers as well as reinforcing a devoted base that will consume these “alternative [gulp] facts”. There will be more who take these “truth tellers” seriously (because they align with their own biases), if not literally (rather than look closely to truths because they will debunk their biases).
Ultimately, to put this into sports parlance: This is a long rebuild. It’s a rebuild on top of what has already been a long rebuild. This is a long game that will feature tiny victories over many administrations, Democrat or Republican. It is long because it is having to undo many long held prejudices that are perpetuated by passing them on to their subsequent generations. I can’t even come up with an analogy creative enough to describe how entangled these hateful beliefs are within the lineage of many families. I can only assume that it is embedded in their DNA and impossible to extricate. Or is it? Insert shrug emoji here.
There is no overnight build that accelerates success.
These latest events have robbed me of the love and excitement of watching sports again. The Heat are on the cusp of something great. The Dolphins are relevant again with a player we can all be excited for. And yet I cannot take any satisfaction from any of it. As a father I have to feign enthusiasm as my son wants to discuss the potential of Bam and the promise of Tua. In the back of my mind, I wonder what of his future.
Perhaps when sports, in whatever new normal it manifests itself in, resumes it will not just be an escape but a platform. I’m talking about a platform that will allow athletes of all races, races, and sexual orientations to speak up more and more. It will be to continually speak up, tell the stories, and vocalize truths. It’s like Ricky Williams, wearing down a defense through the first three quarters until the fourth quarter the line is exhausted and yields. Then finally there’s a run that breaks for a long touchdown. There comes the breakthrough. The road to that breakthrough will be a long one.