CLAY JENKINSON: Future In Context — America And Race: When Sports Players Refuse To Play

Ever since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 24, and the subsequent national eruption of protest against police brutality, police shootings and systemic racism in the United States, we have all wondered what ultimately would come of this moment in our long, troubled history of race relations. Would this be another round of temporary protest followed by a return to the status quo, a brief flashpoint, as in the Rodney King riots of April 1992? Or would the Floyd killing and its aftermath lead to significant progress and reform? I think most of us feared that it would be yet another blip rather than a watershed.

The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., three months later, on Aug. 23, may have changed everything. It certainly deepened the Black Lives Matter crisis. Blake was shot in the back seven times at point-blank range as he leaned into his car, where three of his children were seated. This led to protests, including some violence, in Kenosha and elsewhere in the country. Perhaps more to the point, it led the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team to refuse to play the scheduled Wednesday afternoon playoff game against the Orlando Magic in Orlando, Fla., where the NBA postseason tournament is being conducted in a protective “bubble” away from the usual fans and even the players’ families.

In light of the Bucks’ decision, the NBA postponed the other two games scheduled for Wednesday night. The WNBA, Major League Baseball and even the National Hockey League followed the NBA lead with postponed games and strong statements of solidarity. After a number of intense meetings among NBA players and some owners, the decision was made to resume the NBA playoffs on Aug. 29.

After a long day of work this past Wednesday, I just wanted to sit down in a recliner chair and watch the Lakers play the Portland Trailblazers in Game Five of their playoff series. When I turned on my television, I was surprised to learn that the games had been postponed or canceled. I’m not a big sports fan, but I like to watch the finals of basketball, the NFL playoffs, World Series in baseball and the NCAA basketball tournament, at least after the Sweet Sixteen. But there was no game. It was some lame rerun of one of the movies that make the rounds of cable television.

I was disappointed. I was annoyed. I just wanted to chill out and watch LeBron James while he is still just inside his prime.

As I sat in my living room trying to figure out what had happened, it soon became clear that the athletes of the NBA were engaged in a truly remarkable demonstration of nonviolent protest. For Wednesday night, at least, they were on strike. No guns were fired. No buildings were burned. No businesses were looted. It was nonviolent protest in the peaceful manner of Gandhi, Thoreau and most particularly Martin Luther King Jr. Disruption without destruction. They were standing between millions of sports fans and an entertainment they very much wanted to see, particularly in the screwy Year of the Pandemic.

I thought of my friends who are avid NBA fans, some of whom more or less live for the games that unfold on their widescreen televisions and home theaters. Their disappointment must have been acute. For some, the whole evening was ruined. Some of them surely were angry at the players. One of my more conservative friends said, “Sports and politics do not mix. Sports and politics should not mix. I turn on the games to watch sports, often to get away from the crazy stuff that is going on all around us. Why can’t these highly paid and pampered ball players do what they were hired to do?”

But I believe every one of these fans — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Blue Americans and Red, urban citizens and rural — wound up thinking that evening and into the next day about what it took for these great basketball players, who want to play the games just as much as sports fans want to watch them, to demonstrate the depth of their displeasure with race relations in America, particularly with respect to the police treatment of Black Americans and other minorities, and their passionate insistence on reform. Imagine all the conversations about race in America that were generated by that peaceful professional sports strike.

The Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) works against the Houston Rockets' James Harden during a 111-106 Laker win at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 21, 2019. (Harry How/Getty Images/TNS)
The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (23) works against the Houston Rockets’ James Harden during a 111-106 Laker win at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 21, 2019. (Harry How/Getty Images/TNS)

Some of these professional basketball players are personal heroes to their fans. The fans closely follow their professional and their private lives. They wear their jerseys and buy the same brand of tennis shoes. They can rattle off their stats. They draft their favorite Black athletes for their fantasy teams. They feel they know the athletes and in some way regard them as friends. How to say this carefully: Some Black athletes are heroes to fans who harbor racist views of African Americans generally, but make an exception for this or that superstar. So, when LeBron James or James Harden goes on strike for racial justice, or merely speaks out, there is a pretty good chance those otherwise bigoted fans will listen, at least up to a point. In other words, for millions of Americans, a sports superstar is more likely to be persuasive on questions of racial justice than, say, Al Sharpton or Jessie Jackson.

Clearly, the athletes of the NBA (and other professional sports) felt that this was an opportunity that must not be missed. Sad though it is, they got the attention of a greater cross section of the American people than the politicians and the activists. I believe that they probably accomplished more with their protest than any other group in America. And they did it in a way that was both peaceful and immensely clever. “You want to see us perform our magic? You’re going to have to take a pause and do some listening first.”

Colin Kaepernick. (Steven Senne/Star Tribune/TNS)
Colin Kaepernick. (Steven Senne/Star Tribune/TNS)

I believe we are at an inflection point in race relations in the United States and that professional athletes may be advancing the racial agenda more effectively than traditional advocates or politicians. Think of how far we have come in the past few years. When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat and then knelt during the national anthem back in 2016 (just four years ago), that peaceful witness against white on Black police brutality was shouted down by millions of sports fans. The vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, attended an Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers game in October 2017 game merely to walk out in a moment of staged outrage. Kaepernick found it impossible to get another job as an NFL quarterback, in spite of his talents.

This extraordinary moment reminds us of the role that Black athletes have played in the quest for racial justice in America. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist as they stood on the medals podium during the playing of the national anthem. Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter race. Public outrage was so great that they were expelled from the Games. In 1964, the former Cassius Clay shocked and outraged white boxing fans (and countless others) when he adopted a Black Muslim name Muhammad Ali. For months and years, white sports reporters refused to call him by the name he had chosen as a sign of his racial awakening and his membership in the Nation of Islam. When he refused to be inducted into the United States Army in 1967 he famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n—-r.” Ali shocked and angered the American establishment when he said, “No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.”

For refusing induction into the armed services, Ali was tried and sentenced to five years in prison, with a $10,000 fine. He was suspended from professional boxing at the prime of his boxing career and his physical greatness. Finally, in 1970, the New York Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated, and the following year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision. He had been banned from the ring for 43 months, which makes his subsequent comeback even more astonishing.

Today, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are regarded as heroes of the civil rights movement. There is a larger than life statue to the two of them, fists raised, on the campus of San Jose State University. What Ali said about the Viet Cong outraged millions in 1967, but now we know he was right on both counts, that fighting in a white man’s colonial war halfway around the planet made no sense to someone from a historically oppressed class of American citizens, and that his quarrel was not with the Viet Cong but with the racial injustice (and its perpetrators) right here at home.

I would imagine that some percentage of NBA fans are angry with the politicization of professional basketball and have turned against the sport, at least temporarily. (Easy to pledge, hard for a fan to continue over time). Others (like me) were probably initially miffed but came to realize that the players were making an extremely important statement that would have been much less effective had they played the games as scheduled, and then just issued a joint statement, or spoken their minds during the interviews that follow a game. They were forcing every American sport fan to face this moment.

Whether we grumbled or cursed or made angry vows or just changed the channel to watch something else, everyone who wanted to watch those games was forced to talk with friends and family about why the games were postponed, and in a very large number of those conversations, someone surely said, “They must really mean it if they are willing to piss off their fans and jeopardize their careers over this. Maybe things are worse than we know for African Americans.” The players’ strategy was to interrupt white lives — a kind of national sports “timeout” until everyone understood how passionately they felt about the shooting of Jacob Blake and police shootings of Black men generally.

At that point I wanted to know how the sports channels like ESPN would react to the player protest. After all, the sports world has been on pandemic lockdown for six months and now, just when there were games to broadcast after that long hiatus, things fell apart. I expected to hear frustration and anger expressed by sportscasters, commentators, producers and owners, and the traditional line about “pampered athletes who are paid tens of millions of dollars to entertain us, so just do your jobs and shut up already.”

I was astonished by what I actually saw and heard. With very few and very tepid exceptions, the sportscasters took the walkout seriously and convened short-notice on-air colloquia about race relations in America, the history of protests led by Black athletes, profiles of Muhammad Ali, discussions of the ways in which even celebrity athletes are pulled over by white cops and subjected to humiliating experiences that no white athlete would ever have to face.

Even ESPN’s mouthiest contributor, Stephen A. Smith, provided extraordinarily thoughtful and nuanced commentary. Smith has strong and sometimes bombastic opinions about just about everything, but on this occasion you could see the pain in his face, and he spoke in a much more muted and somber way than usual. It was clear that the accumulated events of the summer, capped by the Jacob Blake killing, and the moral courage shown by the Milwaukee Bucks, had gotten under his skin. His concerns that evening were not the NBA playoffs or how well he thinks Tom Brady will do with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but with the burden of being a Black man in America. Toward the end of his serious and dignified remarks, he reminded himself, the crew in the studio and the people watching ESPN that most cops are good men and women who work to protect all of us from mayhem and that we would be just as mistaken in condemning all cops as we would be in believing that all Black Americans, including Black American athletes, speak with a single voice about situations as complex as this.

Several of the most prominent former players in the league — Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics and Jalen Rose of the Indiana Pacers — talked about the conversations they feel they have to initiate with their daughters but particularly their sons — again and again and again — about how to survive an encounter with the police, what to do and especially what not to do if they are pulled over in their cars. “No white parent ever has to have that talk with his sons,” said one of the former stars. Player after player was reduced to tears in talking about their fears for their children in a nation where you can be shot for the crime of driving while Black.

I will never forget the words of L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who gave one of the most moving statements during the two-day period of greatest intensity. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” he said. “We’re the ones getting killed. … All you do is keep hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks. (Getty Images/TNS)
Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks. (Getty Images/TNS)

On Saturday, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carroll, addressed the media but he took no questions and he did not want to talk about his team’s prospects for the 2020 season. Here’s a bit of what he said in his 15-minute statement:

(White people) need to be coached up and they need to be educated about what the heck is going on in the world. Black people can’t scream anymore, they can’t march anymore, they can’t [bare] their souls anymore to what they’ve lived with for hundreds of years. …. And Black people know the truth, they know exactly what’s going on. It’s white people who don’t know. It’s not that they’re not telling us; they’ve been telling us the stories. We know what’s right and what’s wrong, we just have not been open to listen to it. We’ve been unwilling to accept the real history. We’ve been taught a false history of what happened in this country.

In the third hour of ESPN coverage of the player protest, one former NBA star said, “I’m not advocating this, but if the players association decided to cancel the entire coming 2020-2021 NBA season, and said, ‘We’re not going to play until these problems are addressed in a serious way with real results,’ by the fourth week of the canceled season, every congressional office would be flooded with calls from fans saying, ‘Do whatever it takes, fix this.’” Nobody hopes that full-season social justice strike will happen, but you can see the growing understanding among Black athletes that the larger culture cannot live without their talents and is likely to support reform if only to return to something like normal sports life in America.

The Black Lives Matter Movement has already achieved a seemingly impossible goal: It has gotten the attention of the entire nation (and world). It has reached an unprecedented tipping point. And when the history of the movement is written 10 years from now or 200, the Milwaukee Bucks are going to be part of that narrative.

What struck me most was the quality of the discourse. It was sober, thoughtful, purposeful, dignified, probing, honest and unsparing, with little or no rhetorical flourishing. Several conclusions came to me as I sat through the entire evening shifting from one sports network to another. First, I do believe that the best national discourse we have had about race relations this summer has come from the sports world. Who would have predicted that? Second, professional athletes have emerged as some of the most effective civil rights leaders of our time. Who would have expected that? Third, the short-duration strike made the point to millions of Americans who might have tuned out the same discussions in the usual world of national political and social discourse. Fourth, the NBA protest was a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life to the idea that peaceful, nonviolent protest would be more effective that campaigns of violence. King understood the level of Black rage that fueled violent protest, but, from his study of Thoreau and Gandhi, he committed himself permanently to peaceful disruption.

For more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities, listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast,The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” Clay’s most recent book, Repairing Jefferson’s America: A Guide to Civility and Enlightened Citizenship,” is available at Amazon.com.

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