Not by choice, but by necessity: Activism halts sports world

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Across the breadth of 2020, a year unlike any in most living Americans’ experience, a year that will be exhumed and studied for decades into the future, and which has exposed the open wounds of our society (again), sports have been the creaking fault line beneath the visible turmoil. Almost from the very beginning, nearly six months ago now, but weighing on the nation like it’s been lifetimes, we have often measured our small successes and giant failures through the prism of the games, which had so frequently been marginalized as a distraction or as entertainment, but have evolved into the most telling measure of our collective discord.

It was back on the night of Wednesday, March 11, when the virus was a confusing, distant shadow, somebody else’s problem, that a single positive test from the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert compelled the NBA to shut down its season. It was a stunning moment. As I wrote two days later, in that instant I was watching an NBA game on my laptop and toggling back and forth to social media platforms to follow a story that I had not anticipated would soon consume society. Had anyone? The Gobert news landed like a slab of marble dropped from a rooftop. Within days, nearly every sport in America had been shuttered indefinitely. NHL, MLB, the NCAA Basketball Tournament and all college spring sports. Golf and tennis majors. The Summer Olympics. Gone for now. There had been nothing like it in modern history.

Over the ensuing days and weeks, America did what America does: Adapted and argued, gained ground and lost ground, lived and died (by the thousands and then tens of thousands, and now more than 170,000, to COVID-19). It is ongoing, scarcely better by most measures, somewhat better by others. As with so much in this time, it depends on who is doing the measuring and who has the loudest voice and the most listeners. Verifiable truth can be a casualty, but you already knew that.

On a parallel timeline, and soon after the lockdowns took hold (in some places, not all), another narrative emerged on the margins and then closer to the middle itself. The story was this: We Need Sports. A nation sequestered (much of it anyway), lusted after the easy entertainment of watching games, and sought refuge from the surreality of life in a pandemic through the relative normalcy of sporting events beamed into their dark, quiet homes. German soccer first. Some golf. Horse racing. Little by little, sports slowly lurched forward. The NBA and NHL created bubbles, in which they would craft an ersatz end to their regular seasons and contest spectator-less playoffs. Major League Baseball designed a shortened season in home stadiums (though not in Toronto), a plan that has proven fraught. The NFL sought to play a “normal’’ season. College football wrestled with irresolvable ethical and economic quandaries, desperate to preserve a teetering and antiquated system.

Viewers watched the reborn games. It wasn’t normal, but it was good enough. There was, of course, a layer beneath this. Like combatants in a battle separate from the pandemic, the teams and athletes and tournaments would be conscripted to provide entertainment, and of course fans would expect them to comply because they are paid handsomely to do so. This is status quo in the sports entertainment ecosystem, though it is spoken out loud only under duress, as when football fans’ weekend pleasure is undercut by rules designed to protect the performers’ brains. Or when a sports league – or a single player – stages a job action for better working conditions or higher pay. This is what the fans often say: If somebody was paying me to play a game, I would damn well just play it. They say they would shut up and dribble, and expect their televised athletes to do likewise.

Then something else happened. A Black man named George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. A Black woman named Breonna Taylor was killed by police in Louisville. They were added to a list that includes Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice and many other whose names we do not know. A nation already stressed to its breaking point by the pandemic – and not coincidentally, by the raw political differences among its citizens, in a contentious election year – took to the streets in massive protests that sometimes became violent for reasons that are not as simple as often conveyed and often not connected to central voice of protest. Black athletes took action. NBA and WNBA players wore social justice messages on the backs of their uniforms and knelt during the national anthem, or walked off the floor during its playing. This entire universe was charged with the electricity of activism. Nothing was capital-N Normal.

Something else happened. Again. On Sunday evening in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police. The incident was captured in a horrifying video that has been viewed by millions. Blake survived the shooting and remains in a hospital after undergoing surgery. But it was too much. On Tuesday, before his team’s game in the Orlando bubble, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, the son of a police officer, sat at a microphone and at first talked calmly behind a mask, then emotionally with the mask removed. “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” Rivers said. “It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We got to do better. But we got to demand better.

“That video, if you watch that video, you don’t need to be Black to be outraged,” Rivers said. “You need to be American and outraged. …It’s just ridiculous. It just keeps going. There’s no charges. Breonna Taylor, no charges, nothing. All we’re asking is you live up to the Constitution. That’s all we’re asking for everybody, for everyone.”

A day later, late Wednesday afternoon, 168 days after Rudy Gobert’s positive test (though again, it seems so much longer), the Milwaukee Bucks voted to not play game five of their first-round NBA Eastern Conference playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Milwaukee is 33 miles north of Kenosha, and the Bucks’ Sterling Brown was tased by officers in 2018 in an action that Milwaukee police later called “inappropriate.’’

The Magic declined to play and boycotted alongside the Bucks. Four other NBA teams boycotted their games. The season could resume on the weekend, but all remains in flux. The WNBA cancelled its games. Major League Baseball lost three games. The Western and Southern Open tennis tournament paused its event for the day. Naomi Osaka, a winner of two Grand Slam tournaments, said on social media that she would not play her semifinal match Thursday, but will play on Friday. Osaka wrote: “… before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.’’ Several NFL teams cancelled practices Thursday. NHL games originally scheduled for Thursday and Friday were also postponed.

On Thursday morning I called John Carlos, who along with countryman Tommie Smith staged the seminal protest in sports history, on the victory stand after the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The last time I talked to Carlos was two years ago, when I was writing a retrospective for Sports Illustrated on the 50th anniversary of that moment. On that day, Carlos was angry. He described the state of the movement like so: “I’ve been talking about this s— for fifty years, and ain’t nothing changed since Mexico City in 1968. Nothing! I’ve spoken and spoken and spoken, and it ain’t gonna make no difference. It ain’t enough. I could die and come back in another life, and things would be the same. You have to agree with that.”

It would be poignant to say that Carlos was glued to his television or his cell phone when the Bucks announced their action Wednesday. In truth, the 75-year-old Carlos was taking a nap. “A reporter called me and asked me to comment on the news,’’ Carlos said to me Thursday. “I said let me take a look and I’ll call you back. I took a look. Then I called him.’’ Carlos has done many interviews and this is instructive. The resignation that had set in just two years ago has been a replaced by a renewed passion, inspired by a new generation. “I’m blowing my bugle,’’ he said. “The dudes that are doing this, the women that are doing this… I’d like to sweep all the s— off my mantle and put them up there.’’

But I called Carlos fundamentally to ask him one question: Does this mean things have changed? His answer: “No.’’ But: “Now maybe we can have a process and have a discussion. Fifty years ago, Tommie Smith and I pulled the blinds open and let the world see America for what it is. That’s what Curt Flood did.  That’s what Colin Kaepernick did.’’ (Kaepernick’s protest began four years ago to the day from the Bucks boycott, protesting the exact same thing). Now we need a roundtable. We need the owners of the teams, we need the government, we need educators. It’s hard work. And anything we do now, we will not reap the benefits. Our children will reap the benefits.’’

Carlos paused and became emotional. “This has happened over and over again, the murdering. Now these young men and women realize that you put the uniform on and people will cheer for you, and then you take the uniform off and the police will kill you for being Black. There was an individual who said `Shut up and dribble,’ [Fox News host Laura Ingraham, to LeBron James, although not to his face]. They are not going to do that. I’m proud of them.’’

This much is clear: In the crucible of a nation worn to its nub by the pandemic and by its warring political differences, and bloodied by racial tension (which is truly older than the nation itself), some athletes and some sports have decided that they are not just athletes, not just entertainers. NBA players struggled with this weeks ago, and again this week, wondering aloud whether they should be in a bubble or in their communities. Wednesday’s action was a powerful answer under deeply unusual circumstances.

It also cast a discerning light on others who have bulldozed forward toward games with their social conscience more muted to the broader world around them. The NFL continues to seek a full season, playoffs and Super Bowl, a daunting task, especially when some franchises have already announced that they will have partial attendance, taunting a virus that is still present. The NFL is powerful enough and wealthy enough to believe it can succeed; the larger question is whether it should. There will surely be protests at many of these games, which the league seems less inclined to damn, as it did with Kaepernick’s. Players will act. That alone will rob the season of any blind normalcy, a good thing. None of this is easy.

College football’s breakneck race toward a season has been more troubling. Two of the five major conferences (The Big Ten and Pac-12) cancelled their seasons, but three others (the SEC, ACC and Big 12) have soldiered on. Virus outbreaks have compelled some schools to send students home, but keep athletes on campus, practicing, a scenario that was described as untenable in spring. But goalposts keep moving, in pursuit of slicing a few dollars from staggering losses.

College players are in a box. The system that makes them powerless unpaid laborers in programs that generate tens of millions of dollars is rapidly changing, but not yet changed. (Many have forcefully expressed a desire to play, guided more by youthful vigor and passion than by common sense or real scientific knowledge; and it’s hard to blame them for that). The adults making decisions are painfully biased by the need to generate some cash. In all of this, there is a painful and potentially dangerous myopia.

The pandemic was first to hold a mirror up to our society, and it has relentlessly kept that mirror in place through nearly six months, with no end in sight. The killings of Floyd and Taylor and the Blake shooting (and all those others before) have been a call to change. There is no more sticking to sports. There is no more shutting up and dribbling. Each in their own time. Not by choice, but by necessity.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.