A week ago, a black man died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Bystanders took video of the assault, which was both shocking and familiar in how it fits a pattern of often fatal police brutality against black civilians. Over the weekend, despite suggested social distancing precautions meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus, demonstrators took to the streets in cities around the country to protest the system that killed George Floyd and the people who perpetuate it.
Now, athletes are speaking up: about how their celebrity status and financial security fails to save them from the racial injustices predicated on their skin color, about what active allyship looks like from white community role models. The teams and leagues they play for should speak up further about how they plan to put their money where their somber statements are in terms of supporting radical change within their ranks.
But the dramatic symbolism of sports is insufficient for articulating what’s actually at stake here. Even the power of a vast, rapt audience is counterproductive if it ultimately serves as a distraction from the harsher realities of black life in America.
What Colin Kaepernick did was bold and courageous. He mainstreamed a conversation that too many were eager to never have, and he continues to highlight the hypocrisy of people who claim they would listen closer if the message was quieter. But also: his peaceful demonstration on a football field didn’t work. In the years since he knelt during the national anthem, the list of black names turned into hashtags and rallying cries in death has only grown.
That is not a knock on the intentional conflation of sports and politics in reporting — which is the only way to accurately cover sports at all. But the people in the streets are not protesting the symbolic or rhetorical denigration of black personhood. They’re protesting actual, extrajudicial, repeated killing of black people.
It is tempting to talk about the unity and equality a team offers at a time like this. To tout via retweets the coaches and athletes who say the right thing, and even to hold accountable those who remain suspiciously silent. But sports are not central to the issue of racism — even if racism is often central in sports. Praise the athletes who use their platform and their presence to draw your attention to these issues, but don’t let their solidarity ease your sense of injustice. Don’t skip to the heartwarming part of the news cycle when we’ve barely begun to reckon with centuries of black subjugation and a renewed emboldenment of white supremacy.
Pay attention to what sports celebrities say, but not at the expense of seeking out the words of protesters themselves or the many difficult-to-watch videos that show the effects of pepper spray and rubber bullets on bodies of protesters who make a statement just by being there. Their civil disobedience, their disruption of city streets (if not the destruction), their pain and anger and fear in the face of a police force that too often looks for any excuse to react with aggression against the unarmed, is the point.
Consider the systemic racism upon which America is built. Consider the state-sanctioned, individual cruelty that allows officers like Derek Chauvin to kneel on the neck of an unarmed man who is begging to be allowed to breathe. Consider, even if it’s uncomfortable, whether you’re complicit.
If there was baseball right now, it would serve as an excuse to look away — for fans and as a reporter. I wouldn’t have covered the clash between people protesting the use of excessive force by the police and the police using excessive force to quell them in Brooklyn. I would have been safe at a ballpark somewhere asking players if they have any comment on the civil unrest roiling around the country and telling myself sports are an important microcosm.
They are. But relying on an inherently sanitized diorama to distill the salient issues into postgame quotes and social media posts is a cop-out. Kaepernick’s actions became fodder for sports talk shows and columnists, a salacious scandal that could be debated from both sides. It doesn’t mean his cause was any less worthy, rather that the industry failed him by repackaging his message as a “First Take” segment for an NFL audience. We can and should engage with the racial violence that motivated these protests at its most visceral and unpleasant instead of through a lens of entertainment designed for easy consumption.
Sports — even in their moments of silence and at their most noble — are a source of undeserved comfort.
Perhaps it’s for the best that we don’t have them right now.
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