Opinion: 'We lost:' This time when fighting racism, the sports world failed

Mike Freeman, USA TODAY
·6 min read

It was March of 1991 when the NFL helped beat back racism.

That year, after the state of Arizona refused to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid holiday, the way the rest of the country did, NFL owners voted to remove the 1993 Super Bowl from the state. It was moved to the Rose Bowl in California and the Phoenix area lost an estimated $200 million in Super Bowl-related revenue.

The NFL's decision led to a cascading of sports leagues withdrawals. Phoenix lost a bid for the 1994 NBA All-Star Game. That estimated revenue loss was $100 million. Notre Dame and the University of Virginia declined to play in the Fiesta Bowl. The Harlem Globetrotters treated Arizona like the Washington Generals and canceled all events in the state.

It was a remarkable moment in time. Leagues and players, from the powerful NFL to the Globetrotters, came together to not just make a statement against racism, but take actual action.

NOT EQUAL: NCAA hires outside law firm to review inequities between women's and men's college basketball tournaments

TOGETHER: As Derek Chauvin trial begins, Chris Paul and Richard Sherman remember how sports world unified

Ann White of Roswell holds protest signs on the North Wing stairs of the Georgia State Capitol building on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. "It ain't over yet," said White. "I look forward to going door-to-door working against everybody that voted for (SB 202)." The Georgia state House has passed legislation brought by Republicans that could lead to a sweeping overhaul of state election law. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Ann White of Roswell holds protest signs on the North Wing stairs of the Georgia State Capitol building on day 38 of the legislative session in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. "It ain't over yet," said White. "I look forward to going door-to-door working against everybody that voted for (SB 202)." The Georgia state House has passed legislation brought by Republicans that could lead to a sweeping overhaul of state election law. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Not long after the NFL removed the Super Bowl from Arizona, the King holiday initiative was on the ballot again. It passed and the Super Bowl was played in Phoenix in 1996.

Fast forward to now. The state of Georgia last week enacted some of the ugliest, and clearly race based, voting restrictions this country's seen in decades. It's worse by a magnitude of a 1,000 than what happened in Arizona because in this instance democracy itself is clearly under assault.

Only this time, unlike in Arizona, as the law made its way to the governor's desk for signing, there was no boycott threat from the NFL or any other sports league. No threats of future SEC championship games being removed. No stance that Georgia wouldn't get any future Super Bowls.

In essence, sports failed. Especially the big boys in the NFL, NBA and MLB. This was Jim Crow 2.0 vs. sports and Crow won.

The sports leagues in Georgia took the same approach as some of the state's largest corporations such as Delta Air Lines Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., which is say, and do, very little leading to the runup of the law being enacted, then attempting to try and act like they truly care. This two-step led to the Bloomberg headline: "Coke, Delta Defend Failure to Stop Georgia Election Curbs."

“Georgia companies can’t have it both ways,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project Action Fund, said in a statement. “It is completely unacceptable to praise the bills that take away our most fundamental American right to vote and simultaneously profit off of our dollars. Their low-key betrayal has now become completely blinding.”

This would also apply to all sports leagues.

Ironically it was the sports world, particularly in Atlanta with the WNBA and NBA, that was remarkably impactful during the Black Lives Matter movement, and after the killing of George Floyd.

But this time, as one of the most racist and insidious laws ever created in this country was passed, the leagues slept.

"We lost," said one team executive, "and it's too late for any of us to do anything about it."

When the executive, who asked not to be identified out of fear of repercussions from Republican officials in Georgia, says the word "us" he means professional and college sports teams in Atlanta and across the state.

And this is the cold, hard truth. Congress is most likely the only entity that can reverse this horrific moment in time.

The time for sports to use their considerable power was before the bill was signed. If they'd all come together and said they weren't going to hold Super Bowls or all-star games or the SEC championship game in Atlanta, it would have put immense pressure on lawmakers.

Now? The law is firmly in place. It would take a massive wave of league and player activism to force change and it doesn't seem like the leagues have the appetite.

The Falcons, Hawks and Braves could unite and play elsewhere until the law is eradicated but there's almost no chance of that happening.

Individual players could refuse to play in Georgia but that won't be enough. The leagues need to act by not playing in the state.

The Republicans who enacted these voter suppression restrictions are determined and vicious, and the fight against them needs to be just as determined and just as vicious.

No, we can't expect sports to always save us, but recently, particularly in Atlanta, they've done just that.

The WNBA was a key reason why Democrats control the Senate. In many ways, America can thank the Atlanta Dream for the pandemic relief bill.

The Atlanta Hawks were leaders after Floyd was killed and led major initiatives to open up more voting opportunities for everyone.

The sports world is offering some tepid responses. Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, told the Boston Globe that players are "ready to discuss" moving the All-Star game out of Atlanta.

I'm "ready to discuss" starring in a movie with Denzel Washington. "Ready to discuss" doesn't mean anything.

The strongest statement so far in sports comes not from the professional sports leagues or the NCAA, but instead from the National Black Justice Coalition, dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+, and same gender loving (LGBTQ+/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. The organization called for a boycott of the Masters, which is in Augusta.

“Georgia’s new law restricting voting access is designed to turn back the clock on civil rights, and return Black and poor and already disenfranchised voters in Georgia to second class citizens," said David J. Johns, executive director of the organization, in a statement. “This is an unacceptable attack on our democracy – and companies that operate in Georgia must speak out against this restrictive law.

“The PGA Tour and Masters Tournament have both made commitments to help diversify golf and address racial inequities in this country – and we expect them to not only speak out against Georgia’s new racist voter suppression law – but to also take action. To that end, the National Black Justice Coalition is calling on the PGA Tour and Masters Tournament to pull the upcoming championship event from the Augusta National Golf Course. Professional golfers should refuse to play in Georgia until the racist voter suppression law is repealed.

“Professional golf should not reward Georgia’s attacks on democracy and voting rights with the millions of dollars in revenue that the tournament generates and the prestige it brings to the State. We all must act to protect our democracy and the right to vote.”

It's a noble thought but there's a problem.

It's too late.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'We lost:' On Georgia voting rights, the sports world failed