You can’t wrap your head around the year of 2021 in sports without understanding 2020. During that year of pandemic and protest, athletes found their voices like at no time since the 1970s, if not ever. After the police murder of George Floyd, athletes at every level of sport spoke out, led demonstrations, and took on the weight of being the spokespeople of the deliberately unheard. In addition to the emergence of outspoken players throughout leagues that depend upon Black talent, world-class athletes like tennis star Naomi Osaka, NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace, and Formula One’s budding legend Lewis Hamilton took the struggle into predominantly white spaces, sending an electric current through the complacency of their respective landscapes. But it wasn’t just the issue of racial justice that animated 2020. That the Tokyo Olympics were not staged in 2020 was not only due to the pandemic but also because of a large number of athletes declared that they wouldn’t go. The struggle of young transgender kids to have a place on high school sports teams continued in the face of a coordinated and well-funded attack to keep them off the field and out of the locker room. The coup de grâce, of course, was the WNBA’s effectively swinging the US Senate by opposing the GOP run by then–league franchise owner Kelly Loeffler and throwing their support behind the Rev. Raphael Warnock.
It’s important to do this cursory run through 2020, because the sports world in 2021, just like the broader society, has felt the bitter sting of reaction and backlash. Fighting racism is no longer in commercial vogue beyond an end-zone slogan. Instead, the executive class has made clear to the players that their frolicking in the fields of the First Amendment is done. There is a reassertion of hierarchy on display, as the message has been sent in multiple ways that athletes are to be seen and not heard, or at least only heard in acceptable, highly staged media scrums. There’s also a painful irony in remembering how many people rightly trashed Laura Ingraham for saying in 2018 that LeBron James and others should just “shut up and dribble.” Her revanchist presence may still cause most to recoil, but her politics are now leading thesports world into clampdown mode.
In 2021, we’ve seen the aforementioned Osaka threatened with being banned from Grand Slam tournaments, because she didn’t want to deal with the media. (The second-ranked player has taken a mental health break in the aftermath.)
We saw fans at NBA arenas act like they had the right to throw objects at players, particularly ones not afraid to make a political stink.
We saw the International Olympic Committee hold its infamous Rule 50 over the heads of athletes in Tokyo to threaten them for speaking out.
We’ve seen the reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers become a voice not “for the voiceless” but for right-wing Twitter trolls by opining about vaccines, woke mobs, and why medical professionals and scientists the world over pale in their knowledge next to podcaster Joe Rogan.
We’ve seen the elevation on Fox News of NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, who went on Tucker Carlson’s white-power hour to say of his colleagues, “I feel like they should just keep their mouth shut and stop criticizing the greatest nation in the world and they should focus on their freedoms and their human rights and democracy.”
We’ve seen, in baseball, the Atlanta Braves basically hold a Trump rally during the World Series by first hosting prominent smooth-faced anti-vaxxer Travis Tritt to sing the anthem and then rolling out the welcome mat for Donald Trump so he could do the racist tomahawk chop on national television with 50,000 people in Georgia, a state whose voting laws are so drenched in Jim Crow that baseball felt the need to pull the All-Star Game earlier in the season. Then, on the labor front, the billionaire owners of Major League Baseball locked out the players in an effort to increase corporate profits.
Few stories have spelled out this atmosphere of backlash and reassertion of right-wing corporate hierarchy in 2021 quite like the one lived by Simone Biles. The Olympic gymnast is one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced. She testified heroically to Congress along with her teammates about rampant sexual assault and abuse in USA gymnastics. Then, after wowing in the world championships and traveling to Tokyo for her gold medal coronation, she decided that her mental health meant more to her than gold and withdrew from the team competition. One might think that the response would have been at least charitable. Instead, right-wing sewer dwellers tried to tear her down for putting her mental health and physical safety first. Voices of solidarity certainly did exist. Colin Kaepernick told Time magazine that Biles “has used her remarkable position as the world’s greatest gymnast ever to inspire a long overdue global conversation on mental health,” and that “her influence extends far beyond the realm of sports and shows us that another world—a better world—is possible when we speak our truths with integrity and authenticity.” But the idea that someone like Biles would even need solidarity speaks to a broader politics where the terms of the debate are being set down by the seething right wing.
The landscape right now is grim, but we need to remember that movements never flow forward on an endless tide of progress but in fits and starts. There are drives to achieve positive change and then backlash that can swamp those efforts. My belief is that the wine is out of the bottle on the question of athletes speaking out and that, no matter the backlash, there will be more of it to come. There are still young athletes taking a knee during the anthem. There are still pro athletes daring to act. And we are going to need those voices as we enter a period of coups and right-wing, unelected Supremes attempting to enforce minority rule, backed by the ever-present threat of violence. Sports will be either a great distraction over the next 10 years or a center of resistance. That will be up to the athletes at every level to decide. The job of the rest of us is to build social movements of significance, whether athletes are part of it or not. As 1968 Olympian Dr. John Carlos says, “You always move forward, even if the world isn’t moving with you.”