They’re human beings first, athletes second
(@kingjames / Instagram)
After four major sports leagues halted to a pause in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement, a new precedent has been set for sports participation in American politics and social reform.
It all started with the NBA when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play Orlando Magic in last week’s playoff game.
The MLB followed with 10 postponed games. Then the WNBA, as the Washington Mystics basketball team knelt in white shirts displaying seven faux bullet holes on their backs in honor of Jacob Blake. Tennis player Naomi Osaka held a strike against her semifinals match, citing on Twitter that “there are much more important matters at hand.”
The protests sent a clear message: they are human beings first, athletes second and they demand change.
Amidst the grueling wait for sports to return during the pandemic, the players chose to control this moment and utilize it towards advancing the future.
The political climate’s changed since the season was postponed back in March. The sense of normalcy everyone craved excluded and marginalized Black populations. So it needs to be reconstructed to better fit a more progressive world in which Black communities can feel safe — and better yet an America with a President who will listen.
“They’ve become like a political organization, and that’s not a good thing,” Trump said during a briefing on Hurricane Laura. “I don’t think that’s a good thing for sports or for the country.”
But it seems like the NBA thought differently. After a debilitating 48 hours, the new NBA Social Justice Coalition was formed to establish a platform for Black and other POC athletes. The coalition is said to instill stronger voting initiatives, promote civic engagement and advocate for police and criminal justice reform. Arenas like Madison Square Garden will for the first time be polling centers this presidential election.
The intersectional links between sports and activism is not a new conversation
The two have been intertwined since 532 A.D when chariot racers revolted against Constantinople emperor Justinian.
In the ‘60s, Muhammad Ali molded modern-day activism in sports after he was imprisoned, stripped of his achievements and boxing license for protesting the Vietnam War.
A common misconception is that because they are now wealthy and famous means they aren’t knowledgeable about real-world politics and can never be victims themselves.
Former professional baseball player Bobby Tolan’s family debunk this agenda and were victims of police brutality themselves. On Dec. 30, 2008, Tolan’s son Robbie arrived at their Bellaire, TX. home late unaware an officer followed him. The officer mistook Robbie for another man wanted for car theft and the night escalated. Despite Robbie’s parents stepping out in their pajamas, proving they own the home and clarifying the vehicle was not stolen, the officer overlooked their pleas.
Robbie was shot in the back three times, but like Blake, Robbie survived. The officer who fired the shots was acquitted and the family has since advocated against police brutality and for reform in the criminal justice system.
Racial injustice does not fade away when a game begins. The athlete’s fame will not always protect them, their uniforms do not shield them and their loved ones' safety are as jeopardized as the common man.
What makes athlete activists unique and worth listening to is that they can manipulate their platform away from themselves and create a revolutionizing moment that is guaranteed to make waves and make history.
In 1968 track and field runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose their fists (aka doing the Black Power salute) at the Summer Olympic Games. In doing so, they sacrificed their careers and were stripped of their medals, but it also became known as one of the most iconic and heroic gestures of human history.
Such courage sets roots and changes the course for future generations. We already look to athletes to push boundaries and to challenge our ideas of what is humanly possible. They are born and bred leaders that deserve our attention and respect in all political and social conversations.
Status, talent and skills do not overshadow the reality that Black lives are being oppressed and ostracized across the nation. Black athletes do not exist to entertain and distract audiences from issues perpetuated and fueled by white terror. That game is over. Black Lives Matter. Black voices matter. Everywhere.