By: Will Hopkins
Normally sports serve as a distraction from the outside world for its many fans and viewers, but when the athletes want these same fans to be anything but distracted, they must take a stand. 2020 has been a rough year in many facets, including in health and social matters. When sports leagues returned following the COVID-19 hiatuses, it was a platform for players to express themselves after the killing of George Floyd. For example, National Basketball Association (NBA) players could put short messages on the back of their jerseys. One such player, Damian Lillard, put “How Many More” above his number 0 uniform. Soccer players in various leagues such as the Major League Soccer (MLS) and English Premier League kneeled to start matches, and the National Hockey League (NHL) allowed its teams to choose who they “Skate For” such as Black Lives. Although some people do not believe that sports should be displaying these social or possibly political messages, those who understand that the athletes have opinions that they should be able to share have accepted and enjoyed the leagues’ decisions. As the late Representative John Lewis said, “Get in good trouble.”
All things changed, however, following the police’s shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 23. Videos of cops shooting him seven times in the back went viral on all platforms, as many disapproved of this use of violence towards a Black man by law enforcement. The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors of the NBA underwent discussions about possibly boycotting their upcoming playoff game to show their displeasure with the current social climate. Before they were set to play, however, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the floor against the Orlando Magic. They risked being credited with a loss in their playoff series to show the world that some things are more important than sports. As a team from Wisconsin, the shooting of Jacob Blake was near and dear to them, but they were not alone. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets decided to boycott their game, and the rest of the league followed for the next two days. The NBA was not alone either. The evening that the Bucks protested, Atlanta United FC of the MLS became the first team in its league to choose not to start its match. Following this move, the rest of the matches that had yet to start that night were postponed. The Milwaukee Brewers and many other Major League Baseball (MLB) teams acted similarly. Evander Kane, one of the few Black players in the NHL, was upset to see that his league did not act similarly to the other professional leagues in America with a higher percentage of athletes of color. Although they were a day late to this movement, the NHL did indeed postpone its playoff games in the days following the original sports boycotts.
Many people understood how the athletes felt but were upset about the postponements of the games they love. The fact that this was such a large talking point showed that the athletes’ sitting out of games had a greater impact than the messages on their backs. The athletes asked for change and for everyone to register to vote, but many people wondered what impact their boycotts would really have. In the NBA, these measures from the players led to intense meetings with people high up in the league office, with some players potentially wanting the season to end abruptly amidst the police brutality against the Black population. The league and its players eventually came to an agreement. The players would return to play in the coming days, but the league in return announced an agreement to start a social justice coalition, open NBA arenas as polling stations, and encourage viewers to vote during the rest of the playoffs.
At the end of the day, the players in various leagues have returned to play once again, but they have shown the power they have, given their fame and resources. The players have helped to create tangible change and have shown how much these issues mean to them, even if they had to sacrifice doing what they love. After a huge game against the Jazz, Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets, displaying George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on his shoes, emotionally said, “We found something to fight for.” Four years ago, we saw Colin Kaepernick take a knee to show his displeasure with the police system, and when the MLB returned for its full slate of games, all players wore the number 42 on their uniforms to honor Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the color barrier in baseball’s best league. These two men and many other athletes before now have been brave enough to speak out. Although they have made improvements in our world, there is still much room for growth, and the current athletes in the games we love have shown that the world is in great hands in terms of leaders to facilitate even more change.