September 22, 2021

Black lives matter: Athletes’ powerful statements still going strong

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BlackLivesMatterBy Sam Laird From Mashable

Despite vehement rebuke from police departments, despite condescending criticism from fans, despite a sports news cycle that continually churns out stats, scores and hot takes, the poignant statements from pro athletes keep on coming.

We’ve seen striking gestures from sports stars over the past couple weeks. In the wake of a tragic string of unarmed, young black men being killed by white law enforcement officers in America, athletes as big as LeBron James have showed solidarity and support.

Those statements did not stop this weekend. If anything, they grew stronger, more powerful and more dramatic.

Before the Cleveland Browns’ home game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon, wide receiver Andrew Hawkins entered FirstEnergy Stadium with a black sleeveless T-shirt worn over his uniform and pads. In white letters was a simple message: Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford III.

Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by Cleveland police while playing in a park with a pellet gun. Crawford, 22 years old, was fatally shot by police in an Ohio Wal-Mart while walking around the store with a BB gun plucked from one of its shelves.

Hawkins’ statement had been preceded by the likes of James, Kobe Bryant and others wearing “I can’t breathe” shirts last week to commemorate the final words of Eric Garner, a black man choked to death by an NYPD officer in Staten Island in July after he was busted selling loose cigarettes.

But Hawkins still drew stern rebuke from Cleveland Police Patrolman Union President Jeff Follmer, who called his gesture “pathetic” in a statement that read in full:

It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns organization owes us an apology.

The Browns, to their credit, fired back with a statement that said the organization endorses the rights of players “to project their support and bring awareness to issues that are important to them if done so in a responsible manner.”

Well done, Browns — but that was nothing compared to how poignantly Hawkins himself explained his T-shirt on Monday.

“A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology,” Hawkins said toward the beginning of a six-minute monologue that ended with him choking up while drawing a parallel between Rice and his own young son. The whole video is well worth watching:

Women’s teams college basketball teams got into the action on Saturday. Notre Dame, ranked fifth nationally, warmed up before its game against Michigan in “I can’t breathe” shirts — making them what appears to be the first group of female athletes to do so.

Then, on Saturday night, the Cal women’s basketball team advanced the conversation a dramatic step further.

The team took the court in homemade black T-shirts before playing on the road at Long Beach State. The backs of the shirts read: #BlackLivesMatter and #WeAreCal. Written on duct-tape stuck to the fronts of the shirts were the names of black Americans who have either been lynched or killed by police:

Why it matters

The Golden Bears’ act of protest came after violent clashes in Berkeley between police and demonstrators, as well as the Saturday morning discovery of three cutouts of black bodies hung in effigy on the Cal campus. Like the Browns with Hawkins, Cal coach Lindsey Gottlieb staunchly defended her players amid criticism.

“As a group, they decided to wear shirts that brought attention to lives lost – recently and throughout history – and to stand and say that black lives matter; all lives matter,” Gottlieb said in a written statement after the Bears lost by two points in overtime.

“I wish we had won today,” Gottlieb continued. “It was a brutal loss, but our players wearing handmade shirts to symbolize something poignant and important is what I will remember proudly from today. I love this team and staff for who they are as people.”

She also defended her players against critics on Twitter.

Now why is this so important, so laudable? Sports are fun. Sports are entertaining. Sports are weird and goofy. But they’re also where so many Americans go to escape reckoning with more serious issues — sadder issues, more important issues — that may not affect them directly. That’s why sports stars have a special type of platform, and why they deserve praise for using it wisely.

As The Nation’s Dave Zirin put it recently: “By breaching the walls of the sports world, we can puncture the ultimate privilege in our society: the privilege of blissful ignorance.”

Let’s now quickly revisit something from last weekend: Two members of the University of Oregon men’s basketball team held their hands up in solidarity with protesters during the national anthem before a game on Dec. 7. Ducks coach Dana Altman criticized them afterward.

“I think every player has a right to express their opinion, however I didn’t think that was the time and place for it,” he said. “On their own as individuals, they have that right. As part of our basketball team, when you put the Oregon jersey on, it’s a little different. So, I think there’s a time and place for everything. I don’t think that was the appropriate time.”

As we saw this weekend from Hawkins, Notre Dame, Cal and others, the statements from sports figures aren’t slowing down — and nor should they. With continued solidarity and support, hopefully Altman and others like him will see the light soon.

Powerful messages were heard in the NFL and women’s college basketball worlds this weekend.


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