Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford III
Wednesday, August 26 was one of the most widespread days of sports activism that the nation has ever witnessed.
The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic, refusing to come out of the locker room. Two other NBA playoff games were postponed. WNBA players opted out of playing their regularly scheduled games and five MLS matches were called off. Three MLB games were postponed, NHL players called on the league to do more and several ˚NFL teams canceled practice. Professional tennis player, Naomi Osaka, sat out a semifinal match.
These professional athletes are forgoing the highest revenue earning games of the year. Why?
These athletes are expressing their anger and exhaustion from seeing another Black man being shot by police — this time taking place in Wisconsin with seven shots in the back, while his three children were inside the car. Jacob Blake is still alive, paralyzed from the waist down.
Our nation is in pain. We are in pain for Jacob Blake, his family, and his community. We are also in pain for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and many others whose mere skin color was a weapon. But the boycotts this week are not just about the pain brought on by the recent abuses of power, police brutality and murder of African-Americans. They are about the pain brought on by hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination. Athletes have seen this before, have taken action, and hoped there would be answers. Yet, history is resembling in the present.
ESPN’s Elle Duncan tweeted: “We’ve only ever seen NBA players boycott a game ONCE. It was an exhibition game in 1961 and Bill Russell with a handful of other Celtics sat out in protest of racial injustice…the fact we are still doing this 50 years later for the SAME THING should be incredibly telling.”
The 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech occurred this year. King called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the United States. King’s speech has lasting power. The speech played an “important role in helping pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the pivotal Selma to Montgomery march that he led in 1965 would provide momentum for the passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act,” according to a New York Times article published in 2013.
In the historic speech, King exclaimed, “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.” The time is now for athletes, particularly the University of Maryland sports teams, to take a collective stand to fight racism and social injustices. Below are two actionable ways that Terps sports programs can honor King’s legacy:
Representation matters. Teams track which high schools and states players come from, but not racial demographics. Teams should start tracking the diversity of its athletes dating back from the programs’ beginning. The data, names, and overlaying images, can be displayed on the team webpage and in the locker room. Had we not seen images of Black lacrosse players from the 80s, then we might not have played in College Park. Think of how many athletes are walled out from considering Maryland because they can’t envision themselves playing there. You can’t be what you can’t see.
Have An Antiracist Mindset
Antiracism should be one of the goals of the team in the locker room. As Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University notes in his book How to Be an Antiracist, “it’s not enough to simply be “not racist.”
“The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist,’” he writes. “It is ‘antiracist’.”
Coaching staff should partake in a form of antiracism training that can surface implicit bias and cultural problems. After successful implementation, training could become a requirement for the existing team and all incoming freshmen thereafter. We bring our histories with us. Knowing where we come from and who we represent can be a winning strategy.
Other steps towards realizing King’s dream can include:
Advocacy — support local and national initiatives that push for change in favor of antiracist and anti-discrimination policies.
Mentorship — continued involvement with organizations that support Black youth such as Next One Up, Prince George’s County Lacrosse, and Harlem Lacrosse.
Inclusive Hiring — interview ethnic-minority candidates for coaching and senior operation jobs when there are vacancies.
Alliance Groups — Alumni, across teams and genders, could remain in solidarity after graduation and the Black voices can collectively address issues facing current athletes.
There are so many Black student groups on campus. Rather than reinventing the wheel for things like advocacy or diversity training, Maryland Athletics could work with the Cultural Center, Office of Deversity and Inclusion, or other organizations on campus to create a sense of community.
Athletes hold more power than many realize — intersecting industries, the economy, and culture. The powerless defense underestimates athletes and overestimates ownership. Many professional athletes are boycotting games to bring people’s attention to what Black people have known for years. Fighting for what’s right does not exclude collegiate athletes. It’s time that Terps take action like never before. As alumni, we join you in standing for change and peace. You won’t walk alone.