Column: ‘Stick to sports?’ Never again

June 3, 2020

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 02: A protester holds a sign with the words 'I can't breathe' written on it during a 'Black Lives Matter' rally in Hyde Park on June 02, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. The event was organised to rally against aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia as well as in solidarity with protests across the United States following the killing of an unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

“Stick to sports.”

“Shut up and dribble.”

These are some of the worst, and incredibly tired, statements uttered by small-minded people who don’t like when an athlete says something pertaining to social or political matters the hearer doesn’t agree with — as if athletes are lesser members of our community that don’t deserve to express their thoughts and feelings.

If “sticking to sports” was ever really an option, it died on a Minneapolis street last week alongside George Floyd, a black man who died under police custody for a petty crime, whose brutal killing was then broadcasted to the rest of the world.

Here’s how a similar scenario played out with a white person:

These clearly disproportionate outcomes are exactly what Colin Kaepernick was talking about when he silently knelt during the national anthem in 2016. It had nothing to do with the flag or the military. It was a plea for authorities to stop killing the people of color they’re sworn to protect.

But as Kaepernick and other athletes knelt, America not only failed to listen, but many shouted them down with this phrase: “Stick to sports.”

LeBron James — who has spoken out on social issues throughout his career and was famously told to “shut up and dribble” by conservative media personality Laura Ingraham — wore this T-shirt in 2014, and sadly, it’s every bit as relevant in 2020.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James warms up before an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center, Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Professional athletes have worn “I Can’t Breathe” messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The valuing of black people’s lives should be considered an inherently social issue, not a political one as it’s portrayed. And yet, “Black Lives Matter” is somehow controversial, even though its literal meaning should be considered as true as it is simplistic. When NFL players knelt during the national anthem, that got misconstrued from the message of highlighting injustices in America, as if the marginalized shouldn’t speak out when they are being killed.

As the anthem controversy died down, the burning issue surrounding the resistance raged on. Floyd’s murder happened before we could finish shedding tears for Breonna Taylor.

So, the time for kneeling and T-shirts is over. Athletes such as Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon and Deshaun Watson aren’t tweeting from their basements; they’re on the front lines, speaking out.

This fight isn’t just for black athletes either. Racism is a problem for everyone not directly benefiting from it. That’s why white NFL quarterbacks joined the fight last week, at least in word. Carson Wentz, Joe Burrow, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr and even Tom Brady (who happens to be friends with the man stoking the protest flames) have all gone on record.

We’re still months away from seeing whether they do something demonstrative such as kneel during the national anthem, but Richard Sherman told Sports Illustrated that it’s already a step in the right direction.

“I’m impressed with the white QBs speaking up because those are voices that carry different weight than the black voices for some people,” Sherman told Albert Breer on Sports Illustrated. “Which means the people who refuse to listen to a black athlete’s perspective will hear the same thing said from a white athlete, but receive the message much differently.”

It’s somewhat promising that entire sports leagues and individual teams have also issued statements about the Floyd killing, some of them significantly more pointed than we’ve ever seen before.

Michael Jordan, whose deafening silence on social matters was perhaps his greatest criticism as a player, was among the NBA owners to speak out last week.

“I am deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry,” Jordan’s statement said. “I see and feel everyone’s pain, outrage and frustration. I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country. We have had enough.”

The Black Lives Matter movement received more help than ever from the sports world on Tuesday, when teams from several leagues all over the globe participated in “Blackout Tuesday” on social media, including those in the D.C.-Baltimore area.

The Nationals, Capitals, and yes, even the Redskins (who took the appropriate amount of flak for literally profiting off racism) all took part in Blackout Tuesday. The Ravens took it a step further when owner Steve Bisciotti pledged $1 million to social justice reform.

If that sounds familiar, it should. Kaepernick has donated over $1 million to a variety of charities during and since his NFL career, and recently contributed $100,000 to coronavirus relief in the hardest-hit communities despite being without an NFL paycheck for nearly four years.

Speaking of which, even the NFL itself — the same league that blackballed Kaepernick for his peaceful resistance and clearly had impure intentions for his staged workout last yearreleased a statement in support of change, although their transparent and flimsy attempt at joining the national discourse was panned by a number of players.

But the reality of the fight for equality is people of color need allies within the establishment to speak up and advocate for the cause. Some of these allies will be imperfect. The message will sometimes come from flawed people emotionally exhausted from fighting for what are supposed be unalienable rights for all American people.

As I said to a close friend and fellow journalist in an op ed last week, change starts with listening. Racism isn’t imagined. It’s not some “card” minorities play to excuse a lack of achievement. It’s an insidious, and very real, monster that’s been woven into the fabric of this country for hundreds of years.

So, instead of telling athletes of color to stay within the white lines, ask them what it is they’re fighting for. Ask them about their experiences. Ask them what a better world looks like to them.

Because everyone, including athletes of all races and colors, has to band together and change this country for the better, or there will be nothing left to save.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is a versatile broadcaster with a broad range of experience. He can be heard in in WTOP's traffic center and on the Sports Desk and his byline is on WTOP.com as a web writer/editor and sports columnist.

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