The question often asked is “What happened”? What happened to the kneeling protests against racist police violence that were staged during the national anthem by Colin Kaepernick and so many others? What happened to black athletes’ centering themselves as critical voices of dissent? Were they stifled by Trump? Have they been silenced by the fear that they could be “Kaepernicked” and denied a right to make a living?
Everyone has theories on the state of athletic political consciousness, but my answer has always been the same: This country is a pressure cooker of racist police violence, and it would just take one incident, probably caught on tape, to see athletes speaking out once again. In other words, the question of whether athletes would make themselves heard would be determined by the police. If they continued with their racist, violent ways, there would be a reaction.
We are seeing one right now following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It’s not taking a knee, in the time of a pandemic that has canceled games, but silence for many is clearly not an option. Athletes have taken to social media to express their rage, and even some of the typical bigoted scolds on the sports media landscape have remained mum, at least as of this writing. This eruption of athletic anger matters, because these athletes have massive followings of white fans who will now have to reckon with Floyd’s murder. These athletes are puncturing the bubble that white people have the luxury of living in: a bubble in which they do not feel fear when they see a police officer. Athletes have a unique ability to reach those people, which is exactly why, since the days of Jack Johnson over a century ago, their platform has been policed so mercilessly.
One example is former NBA player Stephen Jackson. “Captain Jack” knew Floyd and bore a striking resemblance to the man—he and Floyd called each other “twin.” Jackson spoke out in a series of posts, in one saying, “Either you side with what’s right or you condone what’s wrong… you can’t love me and not love my people.”
Many others, including Kaepernick and LeBron James, shared a widely circulated photo of (now fired) Officer Derek Chauvin on one knee, in the process of killing George Floyd, counterposed with Kaepernick peacefully protesting, also of course on one knee. James also posted a story on Instagram about Floyd’s murder with the caption, “We’re hunted.”
Hall of Fame WNBA player Lisa Leslie weighed in, tweeting,
If anybody that follows me is not outraged about these senseless attacks on BLACK MEN, please stop following me! If your spirit is not disturbed, please stop following me! This inflicted Pain but it will never inflict FEAR… sorry, we[’]re not made like that!
Also of note (it’s only of note because so few white athletes have spoken out as part of the #BlackLivesMatter struggle), J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans said in a press conference, “I’ve seen the video, and I think it’s disgusting. I think that there’s no explanation. I mean, to me, it doesn’t make any sense. I just don’t see how a man in handcuffs on the ground, who is clearly detained and clearly saying, in distress… I don’t understand how that situation can’t be remedied in a way that doesn’t end in his death. I think that it needs to be addressed. Strongly, obviously.”
Then there is Tyrone “Tai” Carter, a retired NFL player and Super Bowl champion who was at the front lines of the Minneapolis protests/police riot. As professor Louis Moore pointed out to me, this is a major break from the role black athletes have played in the past, when they were used to quiet down protests. Instead, there was Tai Carter saying, “No justice, no peace.”
It’s unknown whether their anguish will break through the white bubble. We are living in highly polarized times. Income inequality has never been worse, and the powers that be—most specifically, a certain (allegedly) billionaire president—have ruthlessly used racism to keep people divided while the rich loot this country and continue the greatest transfer of wealth the world has ever seen without a coup or revolution. It’s not just the white folks who bring automatic weapons to state capitol buildings while police yawn. It’s the white people who turn a blind eye and confuse being a “non-racist” with being an anti-racist. I agree with the argument that it is the responsibility of white people to educate and confront other white people on their bigotry. But if athletes can move the needle a fraction toward anti-racism, that is critical work, and it should be utilized and treasured.