Why the sports world has seized this moment to recognize that Black lives matter

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This Sunday, CBS Sports will air a series of documentaries and conversations focused on the impact of race and racism in sports history. The “Portraits in Black” programming will air on CBS from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET, hosted by James Brown, and can be streamed on CBS All Access or the CBS Sports app. Documentaries about race in college football and tennis, as well as conversations from the “CBS Sports Connected” series will be aired. The following essay is CBS Sports senior NFL writer Jonathan Jones’ account of how racism and police brutality protests have culminated in this moment for the sports world and nation.

The video of Walter Scott was the last of those I watched.

By the time I saw Scott’s murder in 2015 in South Carolina, I had already heard Eric Garner’s dying breaths, had seen Tamir Rice disappear behind a police car onto the snow-covered ground and had watched Freddie Gray be dragged to his execution chamber on wheels.

Knowing how those videos ended prevented me from watching the new ones. I would see the still images of Alton Sterling on the ground covered up by his shooter in blue, or Philando Castile’s white t-shirt stained with blood or the aerial photo of Terence Crutcher’s last moments. But I never watched the full footage. 

Black people like myself have become unwilling experts on these snuff films. Because we know what happens—and because we know it could have easily been one of us—these videos have, over the course of the past few years, become increasingly difficult to watch. Disbelief, if any still exists, turns into pain, then anger, then sadness and then hopelessness, and this pattern repeats itself ad infinitum.

It’s been two weeks and I have only read the description of what happened to Jacob Blake, successfully avoiding Twitter’s auto-play function. It’s been four months and I have only seen of George Floyd’s killing what the evening news surprises me with.

As Black strangers morph into hashtags, a large part of our country ignored it. These people had cursed Colin Kaepernick. They believed uttering “Black lives matter” was an affront to their personal liberties. If he had just complied…

Floyd’s death, occurring just before a holiday weekend amid a pandemic, represented a sea change. There was no turning away from Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd’s name could not simply turn into a hashtag and fade into recesses of social media. 

Our nation has been forced to listen, and our athletes in particular feel empowered to do the talking.

Athlete activism is as new as police brutality. Which is to say, it’s older than all of us. So what has changed? Technological advancements have made it so we can unsuspectingly livestream murders by police with our phones, just as generational shifts have given athletes a louder voice.

Black athletes have been fighting for their rights from Moses Fleetwood Walker to Jesse Owens, from Jackie Robinson to the Cleveland Summit, from to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s stance has always meant he would never play again in the NFL. As heartening as his tryout was last fall, as NFL executives offer public mea culpas, as much as (mostly Black members of) the media have tried to “apply pressure” and keep his name on the list of top available free-agent quarterbacks, I have known for more than three years that he has played his last down in the NFL.

Kaepernick didn’t intend to become a martyr, but that’s what NFL team owners made him. 

His message never died because the issues never died. His stance was never going to be wrong because it was steeped in hundreds of years of American history. Recall when, in May 2018, the NFL foolishly tried to make a policy for its players to “show respect for the flag” during the anthem, as if police brutality against Black and brown bodies would soon take a long vacation. Team owners, almost all white and male, had no foresight to realize the reasons these men knelt or raised their fists would persist for seasons to come.

To be sure, attitudes have shifted positively in recent years. In 2016, just 43 percent of Americans and 40 percent of white Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, 67 percent of Americans and 60 percent of white Americans support BLM. That change has been seen in the sports world, where Drew Brees has tried to atone for his misunderstanding of protests and where Roger Goodell has uttered “Black Lives Matter” after being called to the floor by the top Black athletes in football.

Before that ill-formulated policy, league broadcast partners were looking for ways to not air the national anthem. Today, those same partners have chosen to put those protests during the anthem on air, even though the act of kneeling itself has been codified to extreme measures. Kneeling used to mean a scarlet letter or loss of potential endorsements for the player who dared to ask more from his or her country. Now leagues provided extra towels for cushions for players’ knees.

The collective power of the player has been harnessed more than ever before. We are barely a generation removed from NFL free agency and a bit more with NBA and MLB. They are less property of a team today than they’ve ever been. These millennial athletes have grown up in an AAU and travel-ball era where they had already played together or against each other before they could drive. They’ve gone from AOL instant message to Myspace top 8, Instagram DMs to a Zoom call.

Enough has become enough. If the world won’t listen, practices will be missed and games will be postponed. Telling people “don’t boo, vote” wasn’t cutting it, and now sports venues are early voting sites. Teams realized the ride-alongs they had their players do were little more than social media propaganda for police PR departments. Pithy, vague statements calling for unity have given way to the Baltimore Ravens calling out Mitch McConnell by name.

These results have come from months of conversations. Some Black NFL players spent the offseason on team-wide Zoom calls talking about their close calls with law enforcement, and last week the NBA held a quorum in the Orlando bubble. WNBA players continued leading the way on social justice issues when the league postponed games for a “day of reflection and call to action.” As best they can, these players are saying no more water, but fire next time.

They’ve seen that their actions on the field or on the court have a direct impact on the lives of those in the stands. They can make a grown man do the wave or have him burn his jersey in a backyard fire pit.

These players realize they have the power. Because you have total control when someone relies on you for their happiness. 

This unnatural phenomenon of Black people losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement did not begin with Donald Trump and his administration. I had stopped watching these videos before Trump ever launched his presidential campaign.

But the most divisive president in modern American history has exacerbated these issues. His ascension to our highest office, previously held by a Black man for the first time ever, was abetted by white voters who wished to maintain the power their white skin has always conveyed to them in this nation.

In the last three-plus years, we have grown weary of the law-and-order dog whistles as minorities claw for equal rights and as violent crime continues its decades-long downward trajectory. Tired of being gaslit by a president who equivocates for neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Who is cozy with those who say “shut up and dribble.” Who refers to those exercising their First Amendment rights as “sons of bitches” and then deliberately misrepresents what those demonstrations mean. Who oversees the bullying and gassing of peaceful protestors to have a photo op in front of a church. Who cares more about the preservation of monuments to white supremacy than the preservation of Black life when confronted by law enforcement.

Why now? What you’re seeing in sports now is happening because these athletes are living in the most consequential times of their lives. They have seen officers indicted by grand juries, charged by district attorneys and even convicted (!) in criminal courts, and now they demand justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

They know their efforts won’t stop it all. They couldn’t prevent Jacob Blake from being paralyzed by seven bullets from one officer. By the end of this godforsaken year we’ll have more hashtags that were once living, breathing fathers, sons, husbands or brothers. 

But they have to do something. Through their otherworldly talents, they have money and fame. They have access to more money and political connections via the owner of their team. They have figured out, perhaps better than ever before, how to collect their voices into one. 

The place of sports in the structure of our society has been revealed to them, and they have realized their importance.

And they’ve been ready for this moment.

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