African American athletes have long tried to use their platforms to unite and draw attention to the effects of inequity. During the 1960s they were led by, stood by, and spoke out with civil rights activists about matters regarding human rights. When the United States government and white supremacists assassinated many of these leaders, though (like Medgar Evers, Malcom X, MLK, and Fred Hampton), the most significant platform left for African Americans to protest in a way that could capture the hearts and attention of America was through excellence in competition—sports. Unsatisfied with being merely an athlete, however, many used their skills and talents to try to get America to at least glance at the inequities that plagued government-induced ghettos and marginalized neighborhoods.
Long before Lebron James dedicated his earnings to making a difference in his hometown and other neglected neighborhoods, or Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest the disproportionate rates African Americans suffer from police brutality or are incarcerated, others came before them. Figures like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith used not only their athletic ability, but also their voices and actions to draw attention to the change America could not afford to put off. Today these athletes are monumentalized and praised for moving the needle in a positive direction regarding human rights. At the time, however, their protests and outspokenness weren’t received with warm regards from the public. Funny how hindsight has a way of clarifying a historical moment.
At our current moment in history—May/June 2020—many are now beginning to wonder just how offensive or controversial kneeling during the national anthem is compared to the civil unrest that rapidly spread across the nation following three murders of African Americans at the hands of current and former police officers. How divisive is it to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during pre-game warm-ups of a basketball game after seeing what we’ve seen in the past month?
Athletes shouldn’t be burdened with becoming our culture’s activist leaders. Now that we’ve witnessed Ahmaud Arbery essentially hunted down and shot by civilians with no immediate arrests until footage was made public nearly two months later; and, we know police stormed the wrong house in the middle of the night and shot Breonna Taylor—a public servant, in her own bed; and, we’ve seen George Floyd mercilessly crushed to death by police officers over a counterfeit $20 bill, it is apparent we’ve foolishly exchanged futile arguments in the culture wars arena about subtle and silent protests for demonstrations that reduce heaps of hope to ashes—literally and figuratively.
These are not arguments for why Colin Kaepernick should get his job back or why athletes should have the right to protest. Others have already argued with more clear, coherent, and persuasive arguments than I can. In fact, this is quite the opposite argument. Athletes shouldn’t be burdened with becoming our culture’s activist leaders.
We found ways to conveniently distract ourselves with the entertainment of competition.With sports set to make an eventual comeback after coronavirus safeguards shut everything down for months, we are at the point where we must ask the harder questions: Why should superstar athletes have to use their platforms at all to assert that fellow Americans be regarded as image bearers? Why does it often take larger-than-life sports figures to bring attention to the Sandra Blands, Atitiana Jeffersons, and Breonna Taylors of the world to demand they be treated with dignity, equality, and humanness?
One would think a society that prides itself on the values of “liberty and justice for all” and the right to “life, liberty, and property” would be swift to even the scales of objectivity. However, because our nation has been slow to deliver on its promises “for all” we continue to witness seasons of chaos—bullet wounds patched with band-aids.
But instead of heeding the message of superstar athletes, our tendency has been to ignore the impending chaos. We found ways to conveniently distract ourselves with the entertainment of competition. We lifted our voices in praise for high-flying dunks to drown out the pleas for help—for someone to pay attention to the utter disregard of human life. We threw our hands up in celebration for quarterback jukes and touchdown passes to distract us from the dreadful “hands up, don’t shoot” position people of color must assume in hopes to disarm police officers for routine traffic stops.
Why does George Floyd’s murder seem to grip this nation more than any of the others we’ve seen on film?We demand the excellence of athletes to satisfy our appetite for entertainment so we can be awe-inspired of all that the human body can effectuate—as long as those bodies don’t remind us that we exist in a land of gross inequities in regard to human life. If we did, we might just discover we’re part of the problem, so we lose ourselves in seasons of distractions. But now, with no sports, the mirror we’ve avoided for too long has revealed a grotesque image of racism in our culture we can no longer deny.
I asked a close friend of mine, Chad, some questions that I previously posed publicly: Why does George Floyd’s murder seem to grip this nation more than any of the others we’ve seen on film? Why wasn’t everyone enraged when police pulled up on 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a public park and started shooting seconds after arriving on scene for playing in the park with a toy gun? Why doesn’t anyone protest the fact that no police officer was even indicted for his murder? Why didn’t we protest across the nation like we are now when we saw how a male Texas police officer handled Sandra Bland—a woman—for a routine traffic stop, which led to her alleged suicide in police custody? Why aren’t we protesting the fact there’s new video evidence and that the case should be reopened?
Chad’s answer was one I suspected and one that also answers the questions I raised earlier in this article. It’s the nature of Floyd’s killing. It wasn’t a quick slip of the trigger, a moment of miscalculation, or a startled retaliation. This time the murder was a slow gradual pass from life to death. The continuation of former officer Chauvin’s knee embedded in Floyd’s neck after Floyd became unresponsive made audiences sit with George Floyd from life to death. The nonchalance of all the other involved officers as George Floyd and the onlookers pleaded for Chauvin to let him breathe makes viewers see themselves in those police uniforms, contemplating if their continued silence or disapproval of sports protests (like Kaepernick’s) look like that to their African American neighbors. All of America was forced to grapple with the images of a potentially state-sanctioned murder and consider their own complicity in it.
But that answer also reveals why athletic superstars felt it necessary to at least bring attention to situations like these to the athletic arena. Sports is a convenient distraction from fans’ present realities. But when not performing on the court, these athletes who provide the utopian escape for fans must live with the realities of their skin color, like Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown who luckily escaped murder, but not the brutality.
So the athlete protest is essential because, as our chief editor for Christ and Pop Culture, Alan Noble, observed: “White audiences want black entertainment, black excellence, but not if it challenges them.” And America needs to be challenged, frequently, so that we may have a chance to live up to the ideals that we sing about so eloquently before every game. So right now without sports, white audiences—devoid of largely black entertainment in sports—are forced to look at George Floyd’s horrifying murder on replay. Whereas we like to watch gameplay that is fast and quick, audiences this time had to see a murder drawn out for seven to nine grueling minutes, a little over a half of an NFL quarter.
But those few minutes pale in comparison to the long drawn out delay of justice African Americans have been waiting on for centuries. African American athletes have been using their platforms, jeopardizing their jobs, begging for this nation to enact just laws that protect human lives for the sake of peace. Unfortunately, because we have not listened, our country is experiencing unrest this generation has never before seen.
Now we are tasting a bitter mix of the right conditions for a disruption not so appealing as a last second three-pointer: an economic crisis, another murder of an African American, a pandemic, and a vitriolic president only concerned with his version of the truth and asserting his perceived power. And there are no sports to keep us distracted.
But this moment is our moment. Our culture is being shaped by it. What it will look like a year or ten years from now will depend on how we respond to it. Right now is not necessarily about being right as much as it is about being present and feeling the full weight of a dystopian society. In the words of hip hop artist Propaganda, “Being right is a distant second to the joy of compassion, why don’t you come stay a while?” And we are reminded of this when we look intently at Jesus’ ministry here on earth where He was so deftly present in the world’s misery, pain, and injustice and took upon Himself God’s wrath for it all. Unfortunately, we won’t know the full reality of a world emptied from these present sufferings until He returns, but until then our work is to operate in hope no matter our spheres of influence.
When former NBA star Stephen Jackson spoke on NBC’s Today Show about his good friend George Floyd, he said something Americans need to pay very close attention to. “America, you don’t want us pulling a you on you,” he said. And what he meant was that, “You don’t want the people that you’ve been brutalizing…treating like trash…you don’t want them to turn around and do that on you, and that’s why America is scared of us.”
May we be slow to criticize and quick to consider what is true and good about the message behind their symbolism.There’s much validity to Jackson’s statement. It’s the reason why much has not changed. It’s the reason why Vice President Pence staged his own counterprotest of Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem. Any inkling of remembrance of what this country has done and is doing to generations of minorities seems to conjure excessive fear and waspish resistance. When the simple messages of “stop killing us, stop abusing us” are met with disgust and indifference, such emotives are surely provoked by a certain kind of needless neurosis and fragility most are unaware they may be suffering from.
Those types of emotions are unnecessary, because, as Jackson goes on to say in his Today Show interview, most minorities have no interest in punishing everyone for years of systematically unjust behavior. “[We’re not going to] do that,” Jackson said, “because we come from a place of love.” The social media posts, press statements, and symbolic gestures of solidarity with the black community before, during, or after games are simply ways to get America’s attention to hopefully remember to operate from a similar place—a place of love. A place where we won’t demand athletes “stick to sports” so we can go on ignoring injustice. Some, like Ryan Michaels, are finally beginning to understand their errors and are considering their previous offenses against humanity.
So when (if) sports fully return, and athletes decide to use their platforms to draw attention to our present realities, may we be slow to criticize and quick to consider what is true and good about the message behind their symbolism. Superstar athletes should not have to be the leaders propagating the inhumaneness in our culture. We should all be paying attention to it before the “next time” someone else is murdered. Athletes aren’t merely our pawns for distractingly good entertainment. They are our brothers and sisters who also feel the angst of our world. We do not have to sign on to everything they advocate. But if we benefit from what they have to offer with their blood, sweat, and tears, the least we can do is listen to their cries for equity, empathy, and action that extend beyond seasonal sentiments.