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Athletes, coaches take to the streets to protest racism and police brutality

Sports on hold challenges message reach … or does it?

Stick to sports in 2020 seems — not a chance.

Protests after the death of George Floyd at the hand of a Minneapolis police officer included people of all colors, nationalities, ages and genders. They marched with signs and megaphones to voice their ire nationwide after another man’s life was stolen from someone tasked to uphold the law.

Racism is not new in our cities and despite decades of calls for change, little has transpired. The horrific action by this particular officer was captured on video, and the world got an up-close and gruesome look into a frightening scene that transpires too often in some communities.

Athletes, despite their status and are typically recognized in public, are not immune. That they stepped in and out into these protests to lend their voices is not surprising. Only the venues changed.

Sidelined in their sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic, professional and college athletes joined marches, grabbed their own megaphones and invited fans to follow — or they followed fans. Coaches spoke out. They bared their souls and tears on social media. George Floyd was their brother uncle, father, them.

My initial thought was that, in a weird way, maybe it was good that there were no games for a moment that felt different. Sports is known to bring people together. We cheer athletes who have extraordinary physical talent, and we sport team colors year-round. But today, there are no stats to pour over, no highlights to immerse ourselves … only repeated cries for change. Then veteran PR pro, Joe Favorito, who hosted a recent Columbia University Sports Management podcast, asked his guest and former basketball star, Len Elmore, if our sports hiatus helped or hindered these high-profile voices.

“This is a period where it’s time-out,” said Elmore, a longtime broadcaster, lawyer and professor at Columbia School of Professional Studies. “Now we have an opportunity to think. We have an opportunity to look at athletes as leaders as well as individuals and human beings; for them to share not only their experiences but and their grievances as well.”

Len Elmore

Favorito, a decades-long expert in sports and entertainment PR, looked at the timing a couple of different ways.

Joe Favorito

“I think if there were games going on, athletes and teams would have been able to address the issues in a mass forum … an arena or stadium,” Favorito said. “The lack of games, however, gave athletes the ability to speak longer and more individually without restraint. It’s hard to say if one would have been bigger than the other but I do think this feels different than at any other time since self-expression on social has been at the forefront.

“In other moments-in-time, expression by athletes came and went pretty quickly. This one isn’t going away any time soon, and it will rise again on a mass forum when teams do return.”

There is an athlete, of course, who began a high-profile version of this movement. His name is Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback warned America about a racial virus that was spreading at dangerous speeds in American neighborhoods. As suggested by former Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick knelt in protest during the national anthem and became a lighting rod for politicians and NFL fans. He hasn’t seen the field since.

“If we have any true authentic feelings that these athletes can be leaders, now’s the time to listen,” Elmore said in the podcast.

NFL reporter Mike Freeman said he thinks athletes would have joined the Floyd protests regardless of timing.

“They would definitely protest no matter what,” Bleacher Report’s Freeman said. “The brutality of the murder, and the fact Kaepernick had been warning about this for years, is what go them out.”

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and athletes move toward a return to training and playing games, there’s hope that their voices against systemic racism remain strong, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last 400 years, it won’t magically disappear because people had their say for a couple of weeks. We said this after other attacks and long before lives of EMT Breonna Taylor and jogger Ahmaud Arbery were senselessly taken.

So what changed with Mr. Floyd’s death? Maybe people were confined to their own walls for too long trying to stem a pandemic and were fighting to get out. Maybe they finally realized racism still exists in 2020 (yes, there are some that continue to deny). Maybe during this “time-out” in sports, athletes who are recognized for their physical prowess are finally being seen and heard as human beings.

Athletes and coaches have platforms most of us will never know and as Elmore said, it’s their time. It may not be for a Super Bowl ring or the Larry O’Brien Trophy, however.

“Stand for something. Stand for what’s right. Communicate on a daily basis — the right thing.”


©Gail Sideman, 2020

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