St. Louis Rams give 'hands up' Ferguson sign in pregame. Appropriate?

Five members of the St. Louis Rams used the pregame introduction to give the 'hands up' gesture synonymous with Ferguson protesters supporting slain teen Michael Brown.

Jeff Curry/USA TODAY
St. Louis Rams wide receiver Stedman Bailey (12), wide receiver Tavon Austin (11), tight end Jared Cook (89), wide receiver Chris Givens (13), and wide receiver Kenny Britt (81) put their hands up to show support for Michael Brown before a game against the Oakland Raiders at the Edward Jones Dome Sunday.

The protests in nearby Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown have made their way into St. Louis Rams games before. But before Sunday, never quite so conspicuously.

During the pregame introductions before the Rams' game against the Oakland Raiders, five members of the Rams receiving corps took the field amid flashing lights and fanfare – with their hands up.

The sign was a clear reference to the "hands up" gesture that has become synonymous with protests in support of Mr. Brown, who was shot by a white police officer on Aug. 9. Some eyewitnesses have said Brown was shot despite having his hands up, though much of the testimony heard by a grand jury was contradictory and confused.

On Monday, the grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.

At a previous Rams home game against the San Francisco 49ers in October, some fans held protest signs linked to Ferguson, including a prominent one that read: "Rams fans know on and off the field black lives matter." Other fans marched in the aisles with their hands up.

But this was the first home game for the Rams since the grand jury decision, and the anger that has spilled over into civil disobedience through the St. Louis area and beyond, spilled onto the field Sunday.

The notion that athletes should simply play and put politics aside as a distraction is widely debated.

For some observers, athletes like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, who have refused to be drawn into issues of race, take the high ground. They are athletes, not activists, after all, and we don't pay to hear their opinions, we pay to see them play a game.

Yet to others, there is no demand that athletes must check deeply held convictions at the door of the locker room. To ignore injustice, they say, is a form of cowardice. In this view, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two American sprinters who made a black power salute atop the podium during the 1968 Summer Olympics, are heroes. Boxer Muhammad Ali was courageous for refusing to join the Army during Vietnam.

Compared with such protests, the one at the St. Louis Rams game Sunday was small. But it is in some ways a bellwether of the frustrations within the black community. For all the showboating and trash-taking that goes on in professional sports these days, genuine statements of conviction are rare. So total is the focus on sport that coaches, general managers, and owners are likely to see such protests as distractions – and to convey that to players.

If it's not about winning, then don't do it.

The fact that five Rams took the one moment they could be sure that the stadium was watching to show their solidarity with Ferguson, then, is significant. Clearly, it was coordinated. Clearly, it was something that felt that they could not not do. 

At a time when African-American activists are trying to resurrect the spirit of the civil rights era, the Rams pregame Sunday was only the smallest reminder of how those convulsive years swept onto Olympic podiums and into the ring.

And in that way, they are an indicator of how deeply Ferguson has touched America.

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