The start of the football season began with an embrace of unity. What followed? An outpouring of boos from the socially distant crowd at Arrowhead stadium.
American sports are at a crossroads. In times of fear and uncertainty, we often look to athletics to provide joy, inspiration, and clarity. But social justice will no longer afford our national pastimes the ability to obscure our collective lens. Indeed, only the past few months without sports—those empty fields, dark courts, and silent stadiums—have given us the opportunity to focus our national attention on something far more important: police brutality against Black men in America.
Being a Black athlete has never been easy. There is far too much pressure to keep your head down and to, “just play.” Yet never have we needed more from our most prominent Black icons. Recently, professional athletes, recognizing their reach and the power of symbols, have raised awareness of long-burning issues. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are smiling down from above because they know all too well playing sports in a society that reveres you as an idol but does not embrace you as a human is not tenable.
As a Black boy growing up in Washington D.C., I was nine years old when I pleaded with my parents for season tickets to see my favorite football team. My home team, Washington Football, had at one time bucked the status quo by fielding Doug Williams, the first Black Superbowl-winning MVP quarterback. I marveled at what the players had achieved on the field, however, as a child I did not see beyond.
As a Black man, I still marvel at the athletic achievement, but I know now the more important achievements are cultural. Fifty-two years ago, Black Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the Olympic Games in Mexico City as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began playing—a silent protest of the appalling treatment of Blacks back home in the United States. Many years later, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos once stood in protest, Colin Kaepernick and Lebron James have knelt, using their influence to start national conversations. From fists heard around the world to kneeling under the flag the debate continues as Americans are fiercely divided on whether kneeling is dishonorable or appropriate, muting the original reason for the public display—police violence towards Black men.
Each game day, we applaud Black men for athletic achievement, but every day, we fail to protect them in society. Too often we take the violence as a given, requiring parents to continue having grim conversations with their Black sons on how to navigate themselves safely in our current America. But, at this given crossroads society must now adapt as we adjust the lens.
Seattle Seahawks Head Football Coach Pete Carroll, addressing the media, said, “We all are seeing the truth of how Black people are being treated in our streets and … law enforcement is a huge issue to our guys, because they’re frightened for their lives. They’re frightened for the lives of their loved ones and their children.”
Coach Carroll is right. There is a Black man in your life who needs you to listen to his story, to understand the daily challenges he faces because of the color of his skin. To know that he fears for the safety of his son.
Coach Carroll continued, “Our players are screaming at us… Can you hear me? They just want to be respected, … [and] accepted just like all of our white children and families…”
As another National Football League season starts, we must use this as an opportunity for advancement. We must honor the work being done by so many to fight for justice in America. You want our talent but not our humanity and that will no longer go unnoticed.