When conscience takes the court

The message had always been the same: Leave your opinions outside the stadium. But this August, something changed, and the sports world erupted.

Frank Franklin II/AP
Naomi Osaka of Japan arrives on court sporting a “George Floyd” mask during the U.S. Open quarterfinals, Sept. 8, 2020, in New York.

Something shifted in American professional sports this August.

It had been building for years – decades, really. The message had always been the same: Leave your opinions outside the stadium. You are here to play a game, not protest.

But after a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the sports world erupted. Across the United States and Canada, games were postponed in every major professional league – the National Basketball Association, the Women’s National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League, among others.

But what happened? As Phil Taylor explores in this week’s cover story, 2020 was certainly not the advent of racial tension or activism in sport. What, then, led to this moment when, in the most consequential way possible (for sports, at least), racial activism was not only tolerated but allowed to supplant the sport itself?

What shifted, wrote ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant, was the facade that Black players had always been required to construct – the fiction that the lived experience of African American athletes could be put aside like a gym bag. Sports leagues had talked about supporting racial justice; now was a test.

“The result is a group of predominantly Black men and women who have decided to tie the rhetoric into a primary demand: They will be allowed to be admired for their wondrous athletic gifts, but accompanying those gifts is their humanity,” Mr. Bryant wrote. “As a job, yes, the players provide entertainment. As people, no. This is the bargain. The accumulation of what is happening to Black people in this country is real, coming at a real cost. The pain is real. The responsibility is real.”

Sports leagues are essentially corporations. Ultimately, they do what is best for the bottom line, so it can be naive to assume too much altruism in any act. The fact is, a major portion of the NBA’s fan base is Black. Supporting the wildcat strike – in the heat of the moment – made sense.

Yet there was also undeniably something more than crass fiscal calculations at work. Polls show that white Americans – mostly those leaning liberal – are rejecting the notion that the plight of Black people is self-made. There is evidence that, gradually, white Americans are at least beginning to acknowledge the role of systemic racism and the responsibility to do something about it.

In that way, the events of August were notable in that they represented something so difficult for America at the moment – a conversation, in this case between a majority-Black league of players and its overwhelmingly white leadership, held for the nation to see and other leagues to follow. The United States has never undertaken an honest, comprehensive effort at racial reconciliation. The conversation has happened sporadically, and only when forced by activism. Sports has rarely been willing to even entertain this conversation.

It took Black athletes reaching their breaking point to bring that change. As Mr. Bryant wrote, they “changed the deal”: “For a public that expects performance while being indifferent or hostile to the bodies that live inside the jerseys, they will be seen in full dimension, or, sometimes, not at all.”

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