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How Black Lives Matter Protests Are Shifting Racial Justice Dialogues in Professional Sports

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The Black Lives Matter protests are dramatically shifting dialogues about racial justice in sports, says former NBA player, author and activist Etan Thomas. He describes how athletes are forcing a reckoning about systemic racism in professional sports, including in NASCAR, which has rallied around the sole Black driver competing in the Cup Series, Bubba Wallace, who led a push to ban Confederate flags from races. “It’s amazing what’s happening in NASCAR,” Thomas says. “They did more in 48 hours than the NFL did for Colin Kaepernick for four or five years.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to look at the fight for racial justice in sports. The FBI said Tuesday NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace was not the target of a hate crime and that a noose found in his garage had been there since last year. NASCAR described the item as a, quote, “garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose” and says it had been there for months before the stall was assigned to Wallace. NASCAR launched an investigation after a crew member discovered the noose Sunday at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. Bubba Wallace, who is the only African American driver in NASCAR’s elite Cup Series, tweeted the, quote, “act of racism and hatred leaves me incredibly saddened.” On Tuesday night, he told CNN he stands by what he said.

BUBBA WALLACE: The image that I have and I have seen of what was hanging in my garage is not a — is not a garage pull. I’ve been racing all my life. We’ve raced out of hundreds of garages, that never had garage pulls like that. So, people that want to call it a garage pull and put out old videos and photos of knots being in their — as their evidence, go ahead. But from the evidence that we have and that I have, it’s a straight-up noose. The FBI has stated it was a noose over and over again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bubba Wallace. On Sunday, a plane circled over the track at the Talladega Superspeedway towing a Confederate flag and a banner reading “Defund NASCAR,” to push back against the decision of NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag at its raceways.

Meanwhile, Dustin Skinner, the son of former NASCAR driver Mike Skinner, apologized Tuesday for writing a Facebook post saying that Bubba Wallace should be dragged around the pits with the noose.

Well, from NASCAR to NFL, where Commissioner Roger Goodell now says he encourages teams to sign quarterback Colin Kaepernick, we’re joined by Etan Thomas, athlete and activist, who spent 11 years in the NBA, co-host of the weekly podcast The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide, with Dave Zirin. His latest book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism.

It’s great to have you with us, Etan. Let’s start with what’s going on in NASCAR. Absolutely astounding what Bubba Wallace has accomplished, pushing hard for the Confederate flag to be banned from the raceways, and NASCAR finally did comply, and to see, before the FBI said they discovered that this noose-like rope had been there for months, all of the elite car drivers — Bubba Wallace is the only African American elite NASCAR car driver — walking with him in a Black Lives Matter-like protest. And, of course, right before that, Bubba Wallace had unveiled his racing car, which was black with bold white letters, “Black Lives Matter,” and he wore a T-shirt that said “I can’t breathe.” Talk about what’s happening in NASCAR.

ETAN THOMAS: I mean, I think — first of all, thanks for having me on.

And I think it’s amazing, what’s happening in NASCAR, to be honest with you. I had a chance to interview Brad Daugherty, who is a team owner in NASCAR, a former NBA player, yesterday for another show that I have, Center of Attention on Twitch. And he told me about the culture of NASCAR. And I have to — admittedly, no, I’m not an avid watcher of NASCAR. I don’t watch NASCAR all the time. But he talked about how all of the different drivers rallied around Bubba Wallace, and that show of solidarity, and how he said that, in his words, “that wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago.”

Now, getting all to the particulars of the noose, and the FBI have called it a noose many times. They didn’t say that it wasn’t a noose. They didn’t say — well, they called it a noose, just to make that clear, no matter when it was placed there. And why Bubba Wallace was given that particular garage, you know, I don’t know. But they did call it a noose.

But the part that was really impressive to me is, number one, the way that NASCAR immediately rallied around Bubba Wallace. They did more in 48 hours than the NFL did for Colin Kaepernick for four or five years, or however long it’s been. But the show of solidarity around NASCAR, around the drivers — you know, which is different than the fans. So the fans had one reaction. You saw a lot of it — I mean, I’ve even seen it in Twitter mentions. I posted my support for Bubba Wallace, and I just saw the mentions after me. Like, there’s a certain demographic that is in NASCAR, and that’s undeniable. But the drivers don’t match that demographic. And that’s one thing that I didn’t know. I just thought all the — you know, I thought they were one and the same.

But the show of solidarity is something that we’re seeing all across the country, I think, what we saw in NASCAR with that. Right now at this time, since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve seen more white people who have been protesting, who have been rallying around as allies, who want to be allies, than I have ever seen in my lifetime, to be honest with you. And, you know, we can’t worry about where were you, where have you been all this time. You know, like, you’re late to the party. OK, that’s fine. We don’t have to worry about that. But you’re here now. So now is time for you to use your privilege to be able to push for things to actually change. And I think that’s a reflection of where we are in the society. And those drivers in NASCAR, they are pushing for the culture of NASCAR to change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Etan Thomas, I wanted to ask you about the other sports. Obviously, Major League Baseball is trying to salvage its season. The NFL is in a quandary about what to do. And the NBA now is seeking to restart, to get into the playoffs, but there are battles between the players themselves.

ETAN THOMAS: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving recently posted on his Instagram account, “It’s clear White Supremacy and Corporations use us Native Indigenous Black Folk when it is beneficial for their agenda and pockets, so be aware of the truth in plain sight.” So, Kyrie is at least saying that the players should consider not participating, while LeBron James, obviously the biggest star in the NBA and probably in American sports, is saying, “No, let’s play and make our statements through our playing.” I’m wondering your perspective on the battle among the NBA players about the way forward.

ETAN THOMAS: I don’t see that it has to be a battle. I think there’s two different approaches to be able to reach one common goal. We’re going back to the '68 Olympics, and I had the chance to be able to interview both John Carlos and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in my book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and we talked about this very topic. And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar elected not to go to the ’68 Olympics. He didn't go. And John Carlos, of course, went to the ’68 Olympics and did the Black Power salute during the — on the podium, and that reverberated to even today. Now, both of them deserve respect.

And that’s my issue with how — and my approach to hearing Kyrie and hearing LeBron. When I turn on the news and I’m looking at Stephen A. Smith and Charles Barkley and even Michael Wilbon, and the inflammatory language that they use when describing Kyrie and Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley, who have said that maybe this isn’t the best time for us to be worrying about basketball, maybe there’s other things that are — a movement that is going on right now that we should be focused on, and the words that they chose to use, like “stupid” and “dumb” and “ridiculous” and — I would ask Stephen A. Smith, “Would you call Kareem Abdul-Jabbar foolish for not going to the ’68 Olympics?” I don’t think that’s — there’s room for both discussions. There’s room for a civil debate in both of these approaches.

Now, on one hand, we have precedent. We have the WNBA, who did go, and they went to their — as an entire league a few years ago, and I was able to interview Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings about it in my book.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the women’s league.

ETAN THOMAS: And what they did — what’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: The women’s league.

ETAN THOMAS: The women’s league, yeah, the WNBA. And what they did a few years ago, after the back-to-back murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, was they, as an entire league, made a statement. So, every single game, what they did was they had an actual media blackout. So they would answer like two questions from the game, and then, after that, every question would be dealing with what the topic was right there, which was police brutality and the police accountability and what they could do to change things. And they had the entire league. They had white players, foreign players that ain’t even from here. They didn’t even know what was going on. But they educated them on it, and they saw their sisters that were hurting, and they did it together. Yes, that’s one approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Etan, I wanted to get your comment on the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaking about the league’s responsibility in addressing racial inequality.

ADAM SILVER: The NBA can have a — almost an unparalleled voice in this conversation because of what we stand for, because we represent, frankly — I mean, when you think about our players, some of the best-known Black people in the entire world are part of the NBA and now part of the WNBA. So we know we can have a very important voice. … Let’s make sure that in returning to basketball, a larger, broader message about social equality, racial issues are not somehow lost in the discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. I was wondering what you think has to happen right now. He was talking alongside Magic Johnson in a virtual conversation. And then we’ll move on to the NFL, very quickly.

ETAN THOMAS: Well, I think that that’s just a reflection of who he is. He is very different than his predecessor. And people have to always remember, his predecessor — under his predecessor, David Stern, you know, Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were whiteballed from the league. So he is very different. And I had a — I’m not just name dropping, but I interviewed him for my book, as well. And I have another interview that I had of Adam Silver, as well. And I asked him, you know, “Would you punish someone who took a stand for something that you disagree with?” And he said, “No.” I asked him if he would punish Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf under his watch, and he said no. So he is somebody who has said over and over again that he appreciates the athlete voice.

Now, Roger Goodell is different. And we could go right and pivot right to Roger Goodell, because, all before, he said one thing. Now, now he’s trying to kind of slowly turn over a new leaf. And he first made the press conference to say now he wants to embrace NFL players protesting and using their voices, but he left out Colin Kaepernick’s name, which you can’t really do without, you know, mentioning the one person who you whiteballed from the league, you know, for doing exactly what you’re saying that you’re apologizing for now. But then he tried to come back with this, and he wants to encourage teams. I don’t know if it’s little — you know, too little, too late for all of that, you know, too little, too late type of a thing. But, again, we can’t worry about when people get there. If he’s finally noticed it, if he’s finally woken up, and he’s finally said, “OK, I was wrong, and I want to change my ways,” OK. Now let’s see you put action to that. It’s OK to say that, use the words and use statements and things of that nature, but now you have to put action by it. And so, I have to see real, actionable policy change in the way that he conducts it. And first, it has to be with bringing back Colin Kaepernick, because he is the symbol of you trying to squash the athlete voice. It’s not just about one person. It’s about what you whiteballing the one person means to the entire culture.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Etan, I want to thank you so much for being with us and end with the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.” Those are the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball legend. Etan Thomas, I want to thank you so much for being with us. The podcast that you started, again, is started on WPFW, the Pacifica station in Washington, D.C.

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