• Micheal Boulton

Athletes Vs. Social Injustice

The entanglement between sports and social justice is not new. From Muhammed Ali refusing to go into the Vietnam War after being drafted in 1966, to Colin Kaepernick breaking boundaries by kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. Just 50 years apart, these two both had a significant impact on our country, in which both athletes fought for what they believed was right. As the times went by, they both gained a plethora of big name followers. In the case of Muhammed Ali he got big African American names from all sports such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell. Today Colin Kaerpernick gets accompanied by the likes of Lebron James, Mookie Betts, and former teammate Eric Reid to spread his message. However unlike Ali, Kaepernick’s ideology is getting across to more people including owners of sports teams as well as commissioners of sport associations, especially due to all the social unrest that has occurred this year.

In just this year alone police in America have killed 164 black people, however on May 25 George Floyd, a black man, was deemed suspicious after trying to pay at a grocery store with a 20 dollar bill that seemed to be counterfeit. Since an employee at the store thought it was fake, the cops were called. This led to the video of Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. His knee would stay there for almost nine minutes, even through Floyd’s outcry for help and the displeasure of the people watching the situation unfold right in front of them. For three of those nine minutes George Floyd laid there unresponsive and would later die an hour later due to the injuries he had suffered; he was 46 years-old. Floyd’s case is just the lucky few where police brutality is showcased for America to see.

Floyd’s case and numerous other cases of police brutality have sparked protests all around the country, and many have shown their support for the movement. Among those celebrities, many have been athletes that have gone out to protest. In May Celtics guard Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest along with Pacers guard Malcom Brogdon. Brown, a native of Georgia, said “being a celebrity, being an NBA player doesn't exclude me from no conversations at all. I’m a black man and I’m a member of this community… We’re raising awareness for some of the injustices that we’ve been seeing. It’s not OK,” which only validates where his beliefs stood. Not only did it get his point across but it opened the field for a large number of other athletes to fight against the injustices being presented. Multiple NBA teams joined in; Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban was even seen protesting with players and civilians. However the saddest story comes from former NBA player and champion, Stephen

Upon the death of George Floyd, his long-time friend and former NBA player, Stephen Jackson, seen with sunglasses and a black hoodie attends a protest in Minneapolis. He was accompanied by other NBA players and star center, Karl Anthony-Towns (back right). Stephen Jackson also mentioned the bond between him and George Floyd: "Every city, every team I played on everywhere I was, we talked. He was excited with everything I did".
Stephen Jackson at a Minneapolis Protest

Jackson. Jackson actually knew George Floyd and the two were very close to each other, even going so far to call each other their twin. They met in Texas and the two would grow up with each other and remain friends even during Jackson’s playing career: “every city, every team I played on everywhere I was, we talked. He was excited with everything I did.” While protesting in Minneapolis, Jackson called to attention that he didn’t have any more tears to show: “I’ve cried enough. I’m here for one reason. For my brother’s honor.”

During all this instability, the NBA was determined to finish the season that was postponed due to COVID-19. Alongside them were the WNBA, MLB, and MLS waiting to start their seasons as well as the NHL wanting to finish their season too. Not only were they faced with the task of finding out how to limit cases among their sports to play, they also had to figure out how to exhibit their companionship to the BLM movement. In the NBA and WNBA they introduced that they would be playing on a court that had Black Lives Matter engraved in it while giving players the option to put a statement on the back of their jersey along with their name. Slogans such as “Vote”, “Justice”, and “How Many More” along with many others were available to players; Breonna Taylor was included everywhere for WNBA games as well as being an option to have her name on their jerseys. In all those professional sport associations the players and coaches were given the opportunity to kneel during the national anthem, which has been controversial since Colin Kaepernick did it in 2016. A big statement of unity between players and the social cause was when the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers kneeled during the national anthem in unison. These two rival teams had their arms locked amongst each other in a pivotal game that would show which team had the upside of the rivalry, which emphasized that there was something bigger than basketball that needed to be shown. Lakers small forward and sports icon Lebron James said about the incident: “we want to continue to keep our foot on the gas, continue to push forward, continue to spread love throughout America. We're dealing with a lot of racism, a lot of social injustice, a lot of police brutality, not only in my neighborhoods, not only with Black people, with people of color and it's something that we want to continue to have people's ears open to.” The NBA and WNBA were the only ones out of the other sports that gave their players the opportunity to have such a voice in this situation. In the MLS and MLB there were players from both that had kneeled and realized the cruelty of the social injustice. However the NHL did little but they did acknowledge the movement as well.

On August 23 2020, Jacob Blake was shot multiple times at the hands of the police in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Fortunately Blake survived the shooting but became paralyzed from the waist down. Things had already escalated from cases such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, but this made players of the NBA, WNBA and MLB question whether or not they wanted to continue to play. Games in those leagues were canceled due to the unfortunate events that had transpired and the NBA even considered to cancel the season altogether. Players felt that they accepted to play so their messages would be heard and that they could make a change but another occurrence of police brutality made it hard for them to know if what they were doing was even worth it. NFL practices were canceled too as they expressed their sorrow for Jacob Blake and his family. This situation was only a few weeks before the start of the NFL season. Through all the hurt, games started to pick up again, however more and more athletes used their TV time such as interviews to continue to share their empathy and messages to the viewers. As the NFL started players and coaches knelt as well, and teams were also able to put a statement on the back of their helmets too. In a form of recognition The Pittsburgh Steelers in their first game of the season held a banner that stated “Steelers Against Racism” which let them voice their opinion on today’s matters.

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers hold up a banner stating "Steelers Against Racism" for America to see on Television. The Steelers held this during the National Anthem before their first game of the season against the New York Giants.
Steelers Against Racism

As the seasons for each sporting league continues, they all respectfully grant their players the ability to use their platform as a way to boost their message. Although the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain may have been taken their stories live on. They are used to spread awareness of the disease that resides in America: police brutality. Along the way Athletes from all different playing fields used their podium to fight social injustice that’s present today.

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