The most shocking moments in the recent history of America have not been the moments of tragedy or disaster. The most shocking moments have been the complacency.
When America ‘returned to normal’ after shootings in Charleston, in Orlando, in Newtown, in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh – with no appreciable legislation to speak off – I was shocked. I thought ‘surely the death of music fans, of club-goers, of people at prayer, would move us to action. Even the senseless death of children produced no results.
The same fear gripped me after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd: there would be outrage, and protest, and a few suspensions. But no real change.
And while I still anxiously await America taking overt action to address our broken systems of policing and criminal justice and economic opportunity in this country, one thing has stood out to me.
Some of the most effective and powerful voices for change have been the voices athletes.
Just four years ago, Colin Kaepernick was considered an anomaly for speaking out against racism in America because he took a knee during the national anthem. Today, at games in every American sports league – and even in soccer leagues abroad – athletes have been taking a knee before games to express their sincere belief that something is wrong with America.
This week, a police officer in Kenosha Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times as he attempted to get into his car. According to reports, Blake intervened in a fight between two women. When police wanted to question him, he declined and walked away. Clearly, the continuation of taking a knee seemed futile.
The Milwaukee Bucks took the next logical step – they refused to play. They were swiftly followed on Wednesday by the WNBA, the NBA, MLB, and MLS.
An ancillary resulting firestorm has been a dispute between Real Salt Lake’s players and their owner Dell Loy Hansen, who vehemently opposed the wildcat strike, saying “The disrespect is profound to me personally.” His further comments were met by a hail of criticism, and then a long list of suppressed or previously unreported incidents of blatant and open racism as well as sexism by the billionaire franchise owner. The MLS Players Association called for his removal as owner, and as of this writing, Major League Soccer is still attempting to get a handle on the situation.
I bring this all to illustrate the point – the actions of the players is producing results. Racism is getting called out. The ball is, very slowly, but surely, being advanced forward. Activism and protest is part of the solution. And politicians will ultimately be the ones to craft the laws and address the grievances. But the most immediate expression that “this cannot be tolerated” has been taken by athletes.
Certainly, a big reason for that is the racial makeup of American athletes – while 12.7% of Americans identify as Black, fully 74.4% of NBA players are Black. And while the makeup of Black players in MLS is just 10%, the percentage of Latinos is 25%, making for a sizable minority population in the league. For those reasons, and for reasons of wealth and fame, athletes are making an outsized impact on racial justice.
As a predominantly USL writer, I cannot ignore the fact that USL teams took to the field on Wednesday, while athletes in all the other sports did not. To date, only Forward Madison has planned to postpone a game as a reaction to the death of Jacob Blake. I am dismayed by this fact, but only slightly.
USL players do not generally carry the stature that would warrant widespread attention were they to strike. We in Pittsburgh know that getting local media to notice the Riverhounds at all is a constant battle. Additionally, the players get paid precious little as it is. And on top of all that is the effect of the pandemic – the season has already been reorganized and shortened. There’s already anxiety and uncertainty. A game postponement would just be another stressor. I get it.
USL has its own version of the Dell Loy Hansen battle with Charlotte Independence owner Dan DiMiccio. The former Nucor Steel CEO has tweeted racist, transphobic, and antisemitic tweets in response to the suffocation of George Floyd in May. While fan reaction was swift, athlete reactions were somewhat muted. CLT defender Hugh Roberts and former Charlotte centerback Bilal Duckett were outspoken on Black Lives Matter issues, but far more cautious when it came to taking on DiMiccio.
We need to see more from USL players – for them to lead in their own cities, and not just nod as players in bigger cities with higher profiles take a stand. USL players have been pretty quiet these past 24 hours in the face of yet another police killing of yet another Black man. It doesn’t have to be a strike, but it ought to be something.
Athletes are leading the way on this. Let’s hope that some folks with more direct power to affect change are listening and willing to pick up the ball and move it closer to the goal of justice.