June 3, 2020
In the sports world and beyond, Black people have had enough and have fought for change for a long time.
What about everybody else?
Black athletes carry the weight of the Heritage with them. Others, especially white ones, do not, and it has been yet another way privilege has shown its face and given cover to them. They still have that luxury right now, to not say anything about the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA, as he was jogging through a residential area and given chase by a trio of white-armed vigilantes, Breonna Taylor (shot 8 teams in her own home) and George Floyd (choked to death in the streets) at the hands of police, in Louisville, KY, and Minneapolis, MN, respectively, but if/when they do stay silent, they are, for the first time, at this grand a scale, being called out for it. More have spoken up this time around but a whole lot more still haven’t. And it’s not just white athletes, it is also the coaches (college and pro), GMs, owners, commissioners, media, heads of corporations. They are on notice: we will remember those of you who said nothing and more importantly those of you who did nothing.
When statements from athletes, sports franchises and leagues, and those in charge, do not mention the victims by name, the way they were killed, or the terms “racism”, “police brutality” and “police violence”, what are they really saying? If those same entities and people do not acknowledge their own shortcomings or their role in perpetuating these injustices and do not spell out what actions they are taking to be part of the solution, what are they really doing? Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech” is safe, and a go-to for anyone looking to make a sensible statement. Where this fails is that those who consistently cite these King’s lines, also consistently ignore the fact that peace was not all Dr. King called for, and peace did not prevent him from being assassinated. There are no complete solutions and no perfect answer or statement, but silence and the bare minimum are not acceptable. They were never acceptable for Black people and they seem to be becoming less and less acceptable for others, which is a shift we have been waiting for and welcome.
Race may be a social construct but racism is very real. We are losing aspirations, potential, dreams, opportunities, basic rights, breaths, and our lives to it and to the people who uphold it, and those who benefit from it. I was recently reminded that we are all spiritual beings having a human experience and that’s a belief that I hold, but I also know that the systems we operate in were not built on that premise.
Adding Black faces to racist, prejudiced and/or inequal systems, without making necessary and fundamental changes to these systems, is like putting bandaid on an open wound without treating it first. It looks better on the outside but chances are it is getting infected on the inside. It also puts most of the responsibility on Black people to solve a problem they did not create and holds them accountable in a way their white counterparts rarely are.
The reason why there was ever a need for diversity initiatives and policies like the Rooney rule in the NFL or the Selig rule in the MLB is because sports, as a microcosm of society, suffers from ills including, but not limited to, racism, discrimination and inequality. And these policies, although they are a start, do not have a good track record since they have been implemented. NFL owners recently made changes to the Rooney rule to help create more opportunities for coaches, GMs and senior operations executives of color and for women, but the system and the culture have not changed. MLB and the NFL have yet to do anything about teams with offensive names and mascots, Indigenous regalia used as costumes and fan chants and gestures such as the tomahawk chop. They could do something about it right now but they have not. That’s part of the system and the culture that needs to change. The NBA, widely considered the more progressive of the major leagues, has gotten a lot of things right but could have done a lot more to advance the fight against police brutality when its own players were victimized: Thabo Sefolosha in NYC (2014) and Sterling Brown in Milwaukee (2018) lived to tell, and their experiences did not spark a league-wide call to action to ensure that this did not happen to anyone else. The NBA dropped the ball.
Media, sports and otherwise, also need to start checking themselves. Sports Illustrated not having any Black writers on staff as of May 29th, 2020 is a problem. The Ringer, as of June 1st, has “zero black editors and zero black writers assigned full time to NBA and NFL beats”. This is a problem, too. A big one. This is a symptom and a manifestation of the systemic racism, white supremacy and inequality that are woven in the fabric of the US and most of the world.
How do we fix this, then? Unity? That’s good, right?
Calls for unity when it comes to issues related to race are not a bad thing – we do need to get it done together – but time after time, these calls are not about addressing issues head on but rather about silencing Black voices. In society, it means countering a “Black Lives Matter” call with an “All Lives Matter” one and using phrases like “I don’t see color”, or “I love everyone, whether they are white, black, green or purple”. In pro hockey, it is glossing over the impassioned pleas and experiences shared by players like Akim Aliu, Blake Bolden, Saroya Tinker, and Evander Kane, among others, with a “Hockey is for everyone” campaign.
In the NFL, it is making players and coaching staff, standing with locked arms during the national anthem, the model way to protest against police brutality and systemic racism against Black people versus taking a knee. It is also blackballing Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid for being the first to kneel, shutting down the protests with a $89 million pledge toward social justice causes and partnering with Jay-Z and Roc Nation (which includes the recently launched “Inspire Change” initiative) and declaring that “we are past kneeling”. Nothing wrong with money going to these causes but it did not have to come at the expense of someone’s career, did it?
Why can’t unity look like white people joining Black people in saying “Black Lives Matter” and taking a knee? Because it is too radical? According to whom? According to those who are made uncomfortable by these conversations and whose privilege has afforded them the option to participate or not, to act or not, to care or not. Slogans are cute, initiatives are great, but they don’t mean anything if there is no acknowledgment of the problem, no naming of the issues and no space given to the people who are impacted by the injustices to tell their truths, confront perpetrators and the accomplices, express their pain through written or spoken words, through gestures, and in any other way they see fit, because they – not the perpetrators, accomplices, and bystanders – get to decide what the appropriate way is or is not.
For some, maybe because George Floyd’s image has started to be sanitized enough for white people to see him as an innocent victim worthy of justice, maybe because of the circumstances created and exacerbated by the global pandemic we are dealing with, this is a turning point that says “enough is enough”. For many, like me, a Black woman in this world, although the energy feels different, it isn’t a turning point. Not because I have been desensitized to these deaths. On the contrary. Every single death hurts. Every Black body that is abused could be mine. It IS mine. George Floyd’s death was horrific and I did not need a video to know and feel it in my entire being. Breonna Taylor’s murder took a piece of me. Ahmaud Arbery’s murder took a piece of me. Atatiana Jefferson’s murder took a piece of me. Tony McDade’s murder took a piece of me. Tamir Rice’s murder took a piece of me. Sean Bell’s murder took a piece of me. Amadou Diallo’s murder took a piece of me. Tyre King’s death took a piece of me. Natasha McKenna’s murder took a piece of me. Abdirahman Abdi’s murder took a piece of me. Rekia Boyd’s murder took a piece of me. Adama Traore’s murder took a piece of me. Aiyana Stanley-Jones’ murder took a piece of me. George Floyd’s murder took a piece of me, but it did not need to happen for me to be fed up. I have been fed up. Black people have been fed up for generations. We need others, those with power, influence and privilege, to not only be fed up, too, but to do something about it. How much will you be willing to give up to make equality and justice for all happen? How far will you be willing to go to achieve unity on our terms?
We all seem to be together in this because it is very raw and because the protests are happening everywhere at once, but if we are in this together, you need to show up beyond today and beyond this week. Words spoken today will ring hollow if they are not accompanied by actions. Police chiefs and officers praying, walking, crying and standing with protestors right now or playing basketball with Black youths in the summertime may make us feel good in the moment, but these gestures do not mean much if they attack these same protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, batons or their cars, if they brutalize these same children because they looked suspicious, if they implement and execute rules and regulations that hurt the communities they are standing with today or if they turn a blind eye to the crimes of their colleagues. Or, if they walk out of the job or threaten to not show up to work at sporting events when players dare to speak up against police brutality. Keep the performative allyship to yourselves. We don’t have time and patience for any of that. We are dying.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting and killing Black people in the US and yet Black people are forced to be in the streets, risking their lives, to defend these very lives.
Would this many people outside the Black community pay attention, join the protests and express outrage online if we were not dealing with covid-19 and were all busy with the things our lives are usually filled with: work, sports, entertainment, etc.? Would this many people care if the country wasn’t in such dire straits, with an economy in shambles, a total absence of leadership at the top, tens of millions of people unemployed and businesses struggling, the healthcare system stretched to max, and hundreds of thousands of people lost to the virus?
It is 2020 and Black people still have to be qualified with words like “educated”, “articulate”, “peaceful”, and “innocent” to be humanized enough for others to care. Our abuses and murders have to be recorded and played over and over, on every platform, to move the masses. Our pain and our trauma are still entertainment, publicized, glamorized and shown everywhere, on the news or in TV shows alike, like porn. Our lives should matter to you without any of that. But, do they? If they really do, show it. Anti-racism is a verb. Talk about it, yes, but be about it. Not just in public but in private, too. In any environment you are in. Be intentional about it.
Acknowledgement, accountability and change are what we want and need. If sports are the great equalizer they are touted to be, maybe let’s start there – and there is a lot to be done – but let’s certainly not stop there. Black people will not stand for less, and, if Black lives really matter to you, neither should you!
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Habiba Youssouf is a writer and blogger with a communications, event planning and public relations background. She has experience working in sports marketing, publishing and with non-profit organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of Canada. She is driven by a strong will to empower and uplift others, fight against injustices and disrupt the status quo. An absolute
music and sports lover, and a bookworm, Habiba is equally passionate about mental health, criminal justice reform, sports law, social justice, and advocacy. Born in Moscow, Russia, to Chadian parents, she was raised in France, where she also studied and started her professional life, before moving to Toronto, Canada, in 2009, where she still resides. Her blog is errythangnanythang.com