The day was extraordinary, unleashing a movement that played out in real time, stretching across racial and gender lines, sweeping up one sport after another until it seemed as though every professional athlete was screaming in unison.
Enough with the killing. Enough with racial injustice. Enough with being a most imperfect union.
TOP PHOTO: Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill reads a team statement with his teammates. (PHOTO: @Bucks on Twitter screenshot)
No one knows exactly what impact these 24 hours will have in the weeks and months and decades to come, but one thing is certain.
American sports will forever be divided into two distinct eras.
What it was before the 26th of August in the year 2020.
And what it is now.
After yet another act of violence by police against an unarmed Black man, a crescendo of necessary outrage — “good trouble.,” John Lewis would’ve called it — ignited across our arenas and stadiums on Wednesday.
The Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic and were willing to forfeit if that’s what it came to.
It was a staggering gesture by a team that has high hopes of winning its first championship in almost a half-century, demonstrating just how much fear and pain and marginalization so many are feeling.
Even if they happen to be star athletes.
The Magic refused to accept the forfeit, showing their solidarity with the Bucks. Left with no other alternative, the NBA postponed all three playoff games scheduled for Wednesday at its Disney World bubble, where everyone thought the biggest threat to finishing the season was the coronavirus pandemic.
Turns out, we should’ve been paying more attention to the plague of racial injustice, which has stained our nation for all of its 244 years.
“It’s such a terrible situation that we’re going through in this country still, after so many years of this,” said Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers, whose game against the Portland Trail Blazers was scrapped. “It’s kind of depressing.”
Quickly, others were swept up in the moment. The WNBA called off its evening games after the players refused to take the court. Five Major League Soccer games were postponed as well, along with three Major League Baseball games.
For African-American athletes, who have played such an enriching role in our country’s sporting history, the humiliation of being treated as second-class citizens as soon as they change out of their uniforms has reached a boiling point.
This wasn’t just about Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed after apparently taking four bullets to the back from a police officer’s gun, or even those who lost their lives for seemingly no reason other than the color of their skin — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the thousands who came before them.
This was also about Thabo Sefolosha, an NBA player whose leg was broken by the police during an arrest. This was about James Blake, a retired professional tennis player who was manhandled by police in a case of mistaken identity.
This was about every athlete of color who’s come to the awful realization that whatever wealth and privilege and adoration they have earned through their playing skills, it doesn’t always extend to the police or the justice system or really even to much of their fan base.
“The most difficult part is to see that people still don’t care,” said New York Mets outfielder Dominic Smith, who played in his team’s game Wednesday but kneeled during the national anthem and was overcome with emotion afterward. “For this to continually happen, it just shows the hate in people’s hearts. I mean, that just sucks, you know. Being a Black man in America is not easy.”
But it wasn’t just Black men who took up the cause. It was women too, blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, all signaling that they’re not only fed up but realize they’ve got the power to do something about this blight on our national character.
“Ending police brutality is more important than sports,” tweeted Cole Tucker, a 24-year-old white man who also happens to play baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Another white athlete, soccer player Jeff Larentowicz of Atlanta United, spoke Thursday on the need for athletes in all sports to stick together.
“It does feel like we’re reaching a point that this is enough. There has to be change,” he said. “The point of yesterday is to show we’re all together, we all back each other, and when you do push to make that change, you’re not going to turn around not see anyone behind you. You’re going to see a lot of others behind you.”
After some discussion about not playing the rest of the NBA playoffs, leaving what’s already been a most unusual season without a champion, the players signaled they were willing to return to the court either Friday or Saturday.
But they’ll surely want some sort of firm commitment from the owners — both in spirit and financially — to really start tackling the scourge of racial injustice.
“Change doesn’t happen with just talk!! It happens with action and needs to happen NOW!” tweeted LeBron James, the face of the NBA and its most prominent voice.
The NFL season doesn’t begin for a couple of weeks, but several teams showed their solidarity by calling off training camp practices. Let’s hope the players are willing to follow the lead of their NBA brethren and actually refuse to take the field for games if the owners and society at large don’t take their concerns seriously.
That would certainly be the proper way to honor the legacy of Colin Kaepernick, who was effectively blackballed from the league after he began kneeling during the national anthem four years ago to bring attention to the very same issues we’re talking about today.
Sadly, some less-diverse sports declined to go all-in with the cause.
The NHL, whose players are mostly white, carried on with its postseason despite calls from Black players that games be postponed. Evander Kane says the league needs to send “a clear message that human rights take priority over sports.”
The PGA Tour, which has a similar racial makeup, took the course Thursday for its tournament at Olympia Fields outside Chicago — less than 100 miles from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was gunned down in front of his children.
But at least one golfer did make a fashion statement. Cameron Champ, who has a Black father and a white mother, wore two different-colored shoes.
One black. One white.
On the white shoe, he wrote in pen “Jacob Blake BLM.”
Black Lives Matter.
“It’s a situation where people don’t want to talk about it, which I get, but at the same time, it’s reality,” Champ said, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s what we live in.”
The message from our favorite athletes, the ones now trying to guide us to a better place, is clear:
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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