The country is going through momentous changes before our very eyes. And the world of sports, rather than providing a sanctuary for those who want to escape the upheaval, is being jolted with a seismic force of its own.
You might even say a reckoning is taking place at all levels of sports. When NASCAR, of all organizations, announces a ban of the Confederate flag in all forms at its races, well, there’s something’s happening here, to paraphrase the classic Buffalo Springfield song from an earlier era of reckoning.
The demands, revelations, changes and mea culpas that have taken place in just a couple of weeks since the George Floyd protests started are nothing short of astonishing.
Perhaps the fact that almost all our games are shut down from the coronavirus makes this a unique moment of reflection by both athletes and those in the power structure. It’s hard, after all, to find sanctuary in non-existent competition. Or, more to the point, this is one of those rare inflection points in our society where all arrows point in the direction of an awakening of sorts.
Clearly, Black athletes are not going to accept the status quo and are speaking out with a force not seen since the turbulent 1960s. White athletes are joining in solidarity more than ever before. As Richard Sherman told the San Francisco Chronicle, “It’s like the beast has been woken up. And I don’t think they’ll let it go back to sleep.”
This has gone beyond the statements that virtually every sports team and organization felt compelled to make condemning the Floyd killing and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It seems as if a collective soul-searching is manifesting itself in deeds as well as words. Whatever hesitance to speak out that might have existed in the past — fear of alienating owners, coaches, fans, sponsors — has abruptly disappeared.
You have the Boston Red Sox taking the remarkable step, in the wake of former All-Star outfielder Torii Hunter’s comment that he put the Red Sox on his no-trade list because of the racial abuse he received at Fenway Park, putting out a statement that began, “Torii Hunter’s experience is real. If you doubt him because you’ve never heard it yourself, take it from us, it happens.” The Red Sox then vowed to address “larger systemic issues” within the organization.
You had a group of star NFL players releasing a video on social media demanding that the league “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting” — which resulted in commissioner Roger Goodell releasing his own video in which he did just that.
You had the newly elected president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Cindy Parlow Cone, personally apologizing to OL Reign star Megan Rapinoe for the policy — recently repealed — that banned kneeling during the national anthem. Rapinoe had done so in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and Parlow Cone told ESPN, “We missed the point completely – it was never about the flag.”
You had an extraordinary outpouring of allegations from nearly 50 former football players at the University of Iowa, alleging racism and systemic bullying within the program under coach Kirk Ferentz. The immediate result was longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle — the highest-paid strength coach in the country — being placed on administrative leave, and a full investigation into the Hawkeye program ordered.
This only touches the surfaces of a movement that has now spread around the world, from international soccer to Australian Rules Football. The Premier League in England last week sanctioned the display of “Black Lives Matter” in place of individual players names on the back of jerseys. It also expressed support for players who choose to take a knee when play resumes.
Some might call it virtue signaling or political correctness. It’s fair to wonder if all this will last when the vigor of the current protest movement wears off. It’s inevitable that there will be a backlash, and it’s already coming. Saints quarterback Drew Brees received a firestorm of criticism when he stated that he could never support a protest during the national anthem because it was disrespecting the flag. But Brees was criticized from a different direction when he profusely apologized, then backed off his original statement, and then contradicted President Trump by saying, “Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our Black communities.”
It’s absolutely undeniable, however, that this movement within sports, in the wave of Black Lives Matter consciousness-raising, has attained what is now virtually an unstoppable momentum.
The second half of the lyric I quoted earlier — “There’s something’s happening here” — goes: “What it is ain’t exactly clear.” And, indeed, it’s impossible to say where all this is heading.
But if you’re one of those people who likes to tell athletes to “stick to sports” or “stay in your lane’’ or “shut up and dribble,” this is not a comfortable time. Because, for now anyway, the beast is wide awake.