The industry of sports and entertainment will be one of the many agents of change if progress is to be made from the recent protests of racial injustices in America. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was aware of the platform professional sports provided him, which is why he used it to bring awareness to those very issues four years ago.
On Aug. 26, 2016, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before a preseason game. It wasn’t the first time he had done so, but NFL reporters took notice this night and had questions.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick explained after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
His answer was very direct, and it came just a month after a black man named Philando Castile was fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer on a traffic stop. One day earlier, another black man, Alton Sterling, was shot to death by officers in Louisiana. Both killings were caught on camera.
There was enough recent evidence for anyone who claimed to be unaware of police brutality against black people to see it as a real issue. For people already aware, or awakening to the reality, Kaepernick’s stance resonated and meant much more than a football game. But many fans decided to turn a blind eye to his message, twist his peaceful protest into a stance against the United States military. They didn’t want their privilege of not being burdened by the same systemic ills that have plagued black communities for generations to be inconvenienced before the start of a football game.
Support from the NFL would’ve gone a long way towards keeping the focus on Kaepernick’s issue. Instead, the league allowed his message to get lost in a sea of false narratives. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted as much Friday night in a statement that never directly addressed Kaepernick: "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest."
With it solely on Kaepernick's shoulders to figure out how to respectfully get his point across, he had a conversation with former NFL player and U.S. Army Green Beret Nate Boyer and decided to take a knee next to his teammates, instead of sitting on the bench alone. Still, the outrage over his protest continued -- spurred by comments from the U.S. President -- and he was exiled from the NFL.
The same things Kaepernick tried to bring awareness to have persisted since. Following the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the country has witnessed mass protests, some not as peaceful as kneeling. But if real progress is to be made this time around, sports leagues and teams have to support their athletes in the face of resistance, athletes equipped to speak light to these issues should, and sports media has to report the facts every step of the way.
As some of the most visible people around the country and world, sports figures have voices that carry a lot of weight. Athletes also have the financial power to help in times like these, whether it be with lawyer and court fees or donations. Retired boxer Floyd Maywether paid for George Floyd's funeral. Former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who was a friend of Floyd's, has been one of the most vocal and visible people during the protests. Bulls guard Zach Lavine used his platform in this moment to tell people to go vote, as have other athletes. With black players making up a large percentage of many leagues, it is the responsibility of those leagues to listen to their players and provide guidance, resources and support. If Kaepernick's very legitimate cause would've had support of the NFL and other stars, impactful actions could've been made sooner.
This is why Saints quarterback Drew Brees came under so much scrutiny this week for once again turning Kaepernick’s message into a debate over the flag. It's why Goodell had to release the aformentioned video condeming racism on behalf of the NFL. And why Knicks owner James Dolan faced backlash for an internal memo that said his sports and entertainment companies "are not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters." It’s why you see other corporations, leagues, teams and athletes being held accountable for what they say, or don't say, during this time. If a statement is to be made, it needs to be bold and focus on the issues at hand: Racial injustices, police brutality and a flawed justice system. Anything less will be perceived by some as valuing financial interests more than black lives, at best. And at worst, not valuing black lives at all.
In Washington, we’ve seen several athletes and teams add their voices to the cause. The Wizards released a statement that set the tone with very direct messaging. "We will no longer tolerate the assasination of people of color in this country," read part of the statement, which is said to have come from guard Bradley Beal. He, along with Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, Redskins running back Adrian Peterson, Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle and Capitals goalie Braden Holtby have been amongst the most vocal amid protests.
Beal has been vital in bringing attention to important causes, even before people took to the streets, and he still hasn’t been immune to criticism for comments about looters. The Nationals and Redskins also faced varying degrees of backlash for their respective statements.
If we’re going to effect real change and progress on issues of race in this country, it’s going to take for everyone to get on the same page and stay there until something is done, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it might be. That includes our favorite leagues, teams, athletes and sports media outlets. What we're seeing now is that when we don’t live up to that expectation, we'll all be held accountable.
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