Sports are back. Sports are delayed. Sports are done. Sports are back. Sports are boycotted. Sports are back again.
Don’t get too comfortable.
Years from now, when we look at the charts and graphs indicating statistics for games or players or teams or what have you, there will be an inevitable blip in the year 2020 — a forever asterisk next to the bar or dot that is way out of line compared to its 2019 and 2021 (we hope) peers. Players and teams won’t have played as many games. In some cases, statisticians may have “no data available” for a given time period.
Hopefully, someday, when we see these charts and graphs, we’ll think “man, what a strange time that was.” And I also hope that we follow up that thought with “We’re better for it now.”
That’s because we have an opportunity. A challenge to emerge better.
Let’s back up. Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic, initially scheduled for Wednesday, in light of the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year old Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The other NBA playoff teams followed suit, as did several baseball teams, tennis stars, NFL teams and, eventually, the NHL.
The airtime originally scheduled for the Bucks’ playoff game was instead used for Milwaukee’s George Hill and Sterling Brown to read a statement. That means - literally - that people who have no visibility or concept of the protests happening in Wisconsin and across the country, who meant to tune in for a basketball game, were forced to hear the same message others have been awoken to for months. Or, for the Black community in the U.S., for centuries.
COVID-19 took away sports this year, which is a minor point compared to the 180,000-plus lives lost nationwide. But it made us sit at home and think without distractions. It gave us an Opening Day with no actual baseball, a March without the Madness, an April without a spring game, a June without NBA playoffs. Those things we so often resort to, where we channel our passion or simply have a slightly better alternative to staring at a wall after a long day at work, were gone.
Instead, we were left with the horrors of our thoughts, the reality that we’re maybe not as interesting as we thought we were, or that maybe we can’t talk to people if we don’t have sports to talk about, or the hollow emptiness that we realized our lives don’t have as much meaning as we thought they did when we were “busy” watching sports on a random Tuesday.
It meant that when George Floyd was killed in May that we had nothing better to do than sit back and examine ourselves. Looking back, even in the busiest of times, nothing should have been more important than sitting back and examining ourselves. That’s something I learned.
As a privileged white lady living in Chicago, I had to go through my own reckoning and recognize that being my own definition of a good person is not enough to battle racism. I couldn’t turn on the TV and distract myself from that reality even for a few hours. It was a terrible awakening, but it was the ice cold bucket of water we needed to douse out of the complacent stupor we’d fallen into. Given my love of sports, the most salient moment for me was recognizing that I cheered for Black athletes on the field and court and ice, but wasn’t taking action to support them, simply as humans, off the field and court and ice.
I know I wasn’t alone. Given the blogs, the articles, the posts, the guidance, the sharing — it felt like we’d turned a corner. It felt like we were getting on the same page and would make some serious and much needed lemonade out of the sour as f*** lemons 2020 handed us.
And yet here we are today. After weeks of thoughtful messaging on social media, the balance of content on Instagram was slowly dialing back to brunch plates and cheersing cocktails. And another Black man was shot by another white cop.
Adding fuel to the fire, this shooting came days after video was released showing a white cop shoving Toronto Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri as Ujiri attempted to make his way to the court following the Raptors’ win in the NBA Finals last year. Making matters worse, the video only surfaced after news came that the cop was attempting to sue Ujiri. Sports, and the NBA in particular, were primed to bring the conversation back the top of peoples’ minds.
The Bucks weren’t having it. The players from the Milwaukee, less than an hour from Kenosha, recognized they had a story to share. In fact, Sterling Brown had his own story of being a victim of police violence after being shoved by a cop over a parking violation. That movement extended all the way up to the Bucks’ ownership, as owners Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan released a statement expressing their allyship with the players.
The response was swift and emotional. NFL exec Troy Vincent broke down when thinking about his three children that he is “trying to prevent from being hunted.” Mets first baseman Dom Smith brought an emotional message about how being Black in America isn’t easy. Players, coaches and others are speaking out, no longer content to “stick to sports.”
Hero might be a strong description for these individuals, but it’s not far off. If you’ve listened to the Play Like a Girl podcast, you probably know that I believe athletes should not be considered heroes simply because of their superhuman feats on the field. Athletes are mortal and fallible. The records they set in the books are meant to be broken. But those individuals who go above and beyond for their fellow man — they do things that stand the test of time and warrant recognition.
As we discussed on the pod last week, LeBron James is getting pretty damn close to that hero status, given his work with the LeBron James Family Foundation and I Promise School. Other young leaders in the NBA, WNBA and elsewhere are following suit.
But back to what happened last week. Even after everything we went through collectively as a nation in May, the NBA recognized we hadn’t thought hard enough. That’s why, after months of being unable to play due to COVID-19, they voluntarily chose not to — to force the rest of us to continue the conversation.
So don’t blame them. Don’t be mad at the athletes who are quickly emerging as heroes for their actions off the court, for their courage in fighting a system which has oppressed them. A system which allows them to be praised by white fans while on the court and dismissed as something less than human the second they step off.
This year is tough for all of us. Not having our favorite stress relief in sports made a challenging year more challenging. But remember that iron is forged in fire, and we have an opportunity to become stronger and better people as a result. Also remember that it was never about you. Sports are about all of us, and unless we support the players as people as much as we do players as players, we certainly don’t deserve them.
Recognize that as quickly as sports can come back (not that they’ve come back quickly), they can be taken away. So wear a mask. And if you’re really so upset that you didn’t have basketball for two days last week, be extra, extra mad that police violence against Black Americans exists today, and do everyone a favor, and take action to ensure systemic racism is squashed in this generation.