If we can’t do justice to dinner, maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to have dessert. That may have been why several professional basketball and major league baseball athletes decided to sit out their scheduled games on August 26 in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI.
In an American context, this was a very big deal. After all, professional and college sports have always ranked just behind drugs and alcohol as the most popular diversions from real life. Following a sports team is one of the few things in our society that transcends politics, religion and all the other factors that normally divide us. If you’re at a sports bar watching your favorite team in action (forget COVID-19 restrictions for a moment), the people with whom you exchange high fives could be Republican, Democrat, black, white, Latino, Catholic, Muslim, Southern Baptist or space aliens. All that matters is what’s taking place on that communal screen.
At their core, sports are based solely on performance. The winners of the Olympic 100-meter dash or golf’s U.S. Open don’t reach that pedestal because of their Instagram following, political beliefs or backroom deals. Rather, such victories must be earned out in public, against fair competition.
This was no doubt one of the main reasons African American athletes were long prevented from integrating most major American sports. The architects of segregation knew that if these outcasts were admitted and performed well, they would be embraced by the fans of those teams and their perceived inferiority would vanish. Which is exactly what happened, at least on that level.
Thus, it can be argued that sports had a lot to do with moving our society along the path towards tolerance. It was a case of one American trait (the passion for success, at whatever cost) overcoming another (the resistance to social change).
Still, there has always been a not-so-subtle subtext in play, and black athletes who dare speak out against what they see as injustice almost always feel the immediate wrath of the established order. Colin Kaepernick’s mercurial performance against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII made him a national hero; the movement he started, kneeling in protest during the playing of the National Anthem, made him a national pariah.
Of course, the question could reasonably be asked: “Who cares what Colin Kaepernick thinks? He’s only a football player.” And the answer might be “Because he is spoiling our Great Escape.”
What the recent wildcat strike by professional athletes reminds us is that these games to which we retreat are still provided by human beings, not robots. And in a world where visibility is everything, the participants automatically have our attention.
If I were to take a lectern into my local city park and launch into a speech about some current issue, it would be largely ignored. Who am I, after all? Yet if that same lectern used by the New York Giants’ quarterback or the New York Yankees’ star pitcher, the crowd would be enormous. These days, the only real credibility required to state an opinion is to be famous.
Nevertheless, there is more to the Blake case than a mere political disagreement. Whatever is happening between police and the black community, it must be scary for African-American athletes. From their perspective, they know that circumstances may place them in a position where they might become vulnerable, high profile or not.
“People get tired of hearing me say it,” tweeted Los Angeles Lakers’ star Lebron James, “but we are scared as black people in America. Black men, black women, black kids. We are terrified.”
Coming from a 6-foot-9, 250-pound multi-millionaire, this is hard to ignore.
Indeed, it may only be when some well-known black athlete, musician or actor meets the same fate as Jacob Blake that the national indignation level will finally be ratcheted up to the level of real action. In the meantime, American sports fans can vanish into their ESPN bunkers until this all blows over.
Or maybe not.