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For Many Athletes, Challenging Racism Is No Game

ColumnJune 25, 2020
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Rebellion is growing, from Minneapolis, where demands to defund the police radiate globally from the site of George Floyd’s murder, to cities nationwide where monuments to Confederate generals, colonizers and others are being torn down. Some decry this onrushing change: corrupt police unions dismiss the violence their members wreak with impunity on the civilians they swore to protect, and die-hard defenders of the long dead Confederacy continue to wave its battle flag, forgetting that the last flag flown by the generals they worship, back in 1865, was the white flag of surrender. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocks any meaningful police reform legislation. While politicians drop the ball, current and retired professional athletes are stepping up, adding momentum to this historical moment.

The power of the Black Lives Matter movement recently surfaced at no more unlikely a venue than a NASCAR racetrack. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., the only African American driver in NASCAR’s top races, appeared at a race on June 7th wearing a t-shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe, Black Lives Matter.”

Later, Wallace said on CNN, “No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race. It starts with Confederate flags. Get them out of here.” The following day, he drove a car emblazoned with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and peace signs made of interlocking hands of every color. The car’s hood read, “Compassion, Love, Understanding.” Hours before the race started, NASCAR issued a statement that read, in part, “The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Sadly, within a week, a noose was found in Wallace’s garage at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. NASCAR alerted Wallace, and the FBI was called to investigate. On Sunday, a small airplane flew above the Talladega race, towing a large Confederate flag and the slogan, “Defund NASCAR.” The Sons of Confederate Veterans took credit for the racist stunt, attributing it to their “Confederate Air Force.”

On Monday, Wallace’s competitors and their pit crews pushed his car to the front of the line of race cars in a gesture of solidarity. The FBI later announced its conclusion that the noose was an innocent garage pull-down rope, in place since at least October, long before the garage was assigned to Wallace, and thus not evidence of a hate crime. “What was hanging in my garage is not a garage pull…Whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose,” Wallace responded on CNN.

Etan Thomas played in the NBA for eleven years, until 2012. As a player, and now in retirement, he has never shied away from political activism. With sports journalist Dave Zirin, Thomas co-hosts The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide, on Washington DC’s Pacifica Radio station, WPFW. “The part that was really impressive to me is the way NASCAR immediately rallied around Bubba Wallace,” Etan Thomas said Wednesday on the Democracy Now! news hour. “They did more in 48 hours than the NFL did for Colin Kaepernick for four or five years.” Kaepernick, an African American, was a star NFL quarterback who protested racism and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. He played until the end of the 2016 season, after which no NFL team would sign him. He has not played professionally since. Kaepernick filed a grievance, alleging collusion among the team owners, which he settled in 2019.

Across the sports world, athletes are speaking out, risking their careers. Renee Montgomery of the Women’s NBA is taking this shortened season off to support Black Lives Matter, tweeting, “There’s work to be done off the court in so many areas in our community. Social justice reform isn’t going to happen overnight but I do feel that now is the time.” Kylin Hill, a star running back at Mississippi State University, threatened to leave MSU’s football program unless Mississippi removes the Confederate battle flag component from its state flag.

And revered NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in an impassioned opinion piece in the LA Times, wrote,

“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.”

Retired NBA star Stephen Jackson has been front and center at the protests in Minneapolis. He was friends with George Floyd in Houston, and calls himself Floyd’s twin because they looked so alike. George Floyd loved basketball, and should have had many more years to enjoy the game, to enjoy life. For us, the living, still able and obligated to fight systemic racism and police brutality, the ball is in our court.

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