Athletes rising to meet the challenges of historic opportunities

BY J.A. SCHWARTZ

Slavery existed in the United States since before its formal inception in 1776. Despite the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 that legally ended the practice of indentured servitude, systemic racism has festered in the genetic material of this nation, passed on from generation to generation.

Many white Americans have considered black or brown Americans lesser forms of humanity, and have sought to marginalize that segment of this democratic society. It wasn’t until 1954 that black children could attend the same schools as white children. American women fought for and were granted the right to vote in elections in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. That right did not extend to many minority women, however, who would have to wait until 1965 for their turn to have a voice in electing the officials who would govern them.

Americans, both black and white, protested, agitated, demonstrated, marched and rioted to help foster the institutional change that was the backbone of the civil rights movement. Countless Americans, the vast majority of whom were people of color, gave their lives in the service of a cause that was seen to be more important than their individual existence.

That is but a brief summation of the tortuous path trodden by black and brown Americans to overcome the virulent effects of racism in this country. Over the past three months, the issues of police brutality towards the black community and institutional racism have boiled over, fueled by the countless examples of such practices in cities and towns all over the country, and ignited on Memorial Day this year in the public murder of George Floyd at the hands of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

The questions I will pose are simple: What would it be worth to move this country towards an end to racism? Who should lead us on that journey? Is any price too dear if the end result of that process is a country where ALL citizens, regardless of their race, color or creed, are truly treated equally, and without bias or prejudice ?

In May, there were no American sports leagues that were in season. The coronavirus pandemic had cancelled the hockey and basketball playoffs, and postponed the start of the baseball season. Despite not having the nightly platform of press conferences and interviews, many athletes, both black and white, spoke forcefully in support of the movements around the country that sought justice for those who had suffered and sometimes died as a result of police brutality and the institutional racism that undergirded its widespread misuse.

Since June, 270 cities have established new policies that govern the use of force by their police departments (https://8cantwait.org). Those actions alone won’t stop the adversarial encounters between the police and black men, women and children, but there has been meaningful change because of movements like Black Lives Matter, and because of those who spoke out and continue to rail against racism in all its forms.

Maya Moore, a WNBA player of significant accomplishment (she has won four championships, a Finals MVP, a league MVP Award and has been an All-Star six times with the Minnesota Lynx) helped lead one of the first athlete driven movements when she and three Lynx teammates wore t-shirts during a press conference. The shirts read “Change Starts with Us. Justice and Accountability” on the front and “Black Lives Matter” on the back.

At 29, at the peak of her career, Moore announced she would skip the upcoming season to focus on helping to free a wrongly convicted man from prison. In January of this year she reported that she’d be taking another year away from basketball to continue her efforts to see Jonathan Irons win his freedom. After 22 years behind bars following being wrongfully convicted of burglary and assault at age 18, Irons was released from prison this past summer. “She saved my life. I would not have this chance if not for her and her wonderful family,” Irons said of Moore. Moore leveraged her platform as a successful athlete to work for change, and she was willing to give up her lucrative career as a WNBA star to do so. She chose to value the life of a single man, wrongfully imprisoned, over the riches she was set to earn as an athlete.

Last week, Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He is now paralyzed. This event has sent shockwaves through the country yet again, and has rekindled the indignation and helplessness felt by black Americans. This time, the sports world was in a very different position than in May, with the NHL and NBA in the midst of their postseasons, and baseball chugging through the middle of its abbreviated campaign. Athletes in each of the sports met with their teammates to decide how to react to the news. NBA star LeBron James reached out to Barack Obama for guidance. The players had a platform, and a whole nation of daily journalists ready to chronicle their every utterance. The athletes had an opportunity to help foster change, and they acted swiftly.

Playoff games were cancelled in the NBA, with the support of the commissioner, Adam Silver. The NHL initially played their games, but the players met as a group and decided they, too, would stand with those trying to draw attention to the issues at hand. The NHL playoffs were postponed for two days. Many baseball teams followed suit, though there were games that were played each day this week-to the general consternation of many observers who felt a complete boycott of game play was the best position to take. In every case, players were given the opportunity to speak their minds, and their organizations stood in solidarity with their decisions.

As this article is being written, the NHL and NBA have restarted their postseasons, and baseball chugs along with a full slate of games, including several doubleheaders designed to make up for games that were postponed by player choice or COVID-19. We are not privy to the behind-the-scenes discussions between players, or to those between the athletes and their organizations. We do know that the NBA has encouraged the efforts made by many individual franchises to turn their home arenas (none of which are hosting games right now) into voting centers, making it easier for locals to have their voice heard in those cities.

Meetings between NBA players and owners during the boycott also led to the creation of a social justice coalition that would include players, coaches and front office executives. The NHL has its Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group designed to bring attention to the plight of minority players in the league, which has been vocal about the events of the past week. Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, August 28th, honoring the efforts made by that trailblazing man to break the color barrier in the major leagues in 1947. All players wore number 42 on Friday, regardless of what team they played for.

Those efforts have been appreciated, impactful and dutifully chronicled by the writers tasked with covering those sports. However, one wonders if a bigger opportunity remains unexplored.

When a group of NBA players, led by NBA Players Association President Chris Paul and LeBron James, spoke with former President Barack Obama, they sought the guidance and perspective of one of the most influential people in the world. According to an article in The Athletic https://theathletic.com/2029924/2020/08/28/sources-lebron-james-sought-out-barack-obama-for-advice-to-players/, Obama encouraged the players to resume playing, and to “utilize the opportunity to contextualize action they want in order to play.”

Have the players in the NHL and NBA leveraged their platforms for the most impactful result ?

Players in every sport could refuse to play games that will be broadcast to the world on TV and through streaming services unless a significant portion of the revenue generated by those efforts are directed towards social justice and racism movements. The revenue generated by the playoff games in the NBA and the NHL is largely going to the owners, since players are paid a small bonus pool, not their regular salaries (which are paid during the regular season).

If the players in those leagues insisted that they would only play if, say, half of the revenue from the games were earmarked for local social justice initiatives (which could be voted on by the players themselves), the owners would be put in a difficult position. They could refuse, allow the players to boycott the games, and dig their heels in, intending to use such an action by the players as leverage against the player’s union(s) in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement battles. Or, they could partner with the players, sacrifice 50% of their revenue from the games in the service of the advancement of social justice and make a bold statement about the responsibility of institutions in positions of power to be accountable to the greater good.

If there are no games, the owners get zero revenue. There are already significant financial pressures on franchises because there are no fans buying tickets, paying for parking and food, or purchasing gear in the stadium sports shops. The playoffs were the best chance for the franchises to recoup some of the dollars they lost to the pandemic.

Half of something is better than all of nothing, especially when the other half of that something goes to try to change the country in meaningful ways.

When white Americans in positions of power and influence make decisions that promote harmony and social accountability over financial considerations, a great precedent will have been set. The ramifications of such decisions may well resonate through generations of Americans, black and white alike. Those Americans-and the children who will eventually be born to them-are paying very close attention to what their sporting heroes and the men who employ them are doing at this pivotal moment in history.

It is during contentious times that great men (and women) stand up for what they believe in, and inspire us to follow them.

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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