Sports figures must stay involved in pursuit of racial equality

  • Programming Note: A new episode of "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" featuring special guest Oakland attorney John Burris airs Friday night after Giants Postgame Live on NBC Sports Bay Area and after A's Postgame Live on NBC Sports California. 

They’re exhausted but unwilling to surrender. Furious but eager to funnel it into mobilization. Sports figures have shown in recent weeks they’re ready to heed Jay-Z's advice.

Ready to move past kneeling.

And pivot toward action that addresses the issues that have cranked up the heat on our eternal racial schism.

Racial injustice in America continues apace four years and one month after former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sought to publicize it by kneeling during the national anthem. The latest example came this week, when Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced that no charges will be brought against the two white Louisville police officers that fired the bullets that killed Black emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor in her own home.

This is not the news civil rights advocates in the sports world wanted to hear. They were, however, bracing for it because it’s what they’ve come to expect from a deeply flawed system steeped in racism.

Rather than slink away in defeat, though, there is reason to believe athletes and other celebrities will, one way or another, remain vigilant and committed to the pursuit of equality.

As well they should, says Oakland attorney John Burris, who joined NBC Sports Bay Area for its next episode of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” which can be seen Friday night after Giants and A’s postgame shows.

“What’s important here is that attention is given to police shootings where people are killed and there's no accountability,” says Burris, who specializes in civil rights cases. “You have to continually put the pressure on public officials through protesting, through demands, through public appearances and, obviously, having celebrities involved.


“There are going be other cases; the modern trend of where we are is that we're going to have more of these cases. But the more cases you have, the more opportunities you have to effectuate and bring about systemic changes.”

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In the hours after Cameron’s news conference, while there was weeping and protesting in the streets of Louisville -- and even before two local police officers were shot -- men and women across the sports spectrum expressed disappointment, some more vociferously than others.

“It's infuriating,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the outcome and its repercussions on youth.

“We have not gotten that justice, and that’s a shame,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

“The white supremacist institution of policing that stole Breonna Taylor’s life from us must be abolished for the safety and well-being of our people,” Kaepernick tweeted.

“I’m so sorry the people in power have failed to get this right,” former NBA star Dwyane Wade tweeted. “You deserve so much more. Your life mattered. You deserved the bright future that was ahead of you. We will continue to say your name. We will continue to fight in your name.”

A few days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May, touching off protests and some violence around the planet, Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson organized a unity walk in Oakland. He was joined by teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The goal was to bring the city’s diverse community together in the name of racial justice.

Toscano-Anderson, also featured in the telecast, has no regrets but now ponders the future.

“I've been a little confused as to what's next,” he says. “What do I do next? How do I make an impact next? How do I not let this momentum that not only myself but our greater community -- not only the black community but all people who stand by our side -- how do we continue to keep this momentum? And just keep moving forward, and keep being effective?”

A willingness to stay involved is at the top of the list, according to Burris, whose office often is the first phone call made by Northern California families victimized by police violence.

Burris, 75, has litigated numerous high-profile cases involving police misconduct, beginning with the Rodney King case in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, and won millions in cases for his clients. He is known to be fair but unyielding on issues of police brutality.

“Constant pressure is good,” Burris says. “It is true that there is disappointment now, with respect to (the Taylor) case. But I don't think people should give up. Remember this: Changes come sometimes very slowly. We're not in the same spot where we are in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, when we had lynchings. We’re not in the same spot, frankly, I don't think, we were in before Rodney King.


“However, because we have video cameras, it now makes a difference. And now they're saying you’re going to have video cameras in all cases. That's a very positive statement. So, everyday people, celebrities, obviously, can bring a lot of attention to it -- but, ultimately, people in the communities have to do the work.”

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Loud voices from recognizable faces matter because being heard is essential. Influencing the power structure matters. Protesting matters. Exposing corruption matters. Being informed on government representatives also matters.

It’s a centuries-old fight and it’s raging anew in 2020. The sight of Kaepernick kneeling lit the flame and might be the monument. But history tells us nothing changes without dissent that provokes a response.