Professional athletes use their celebrity and wealth to push for change in response to police violence against Black citizens.
Competition in American democracy is called a political race, and, just like in sports, there are written and unwritten rules that make such races fair and equal for all. Unfortunately, as we learned about the Houston Astros, cheating happens, and among the nation’s political competitors, the team that has been cheating is the Republican Party. Rather than support efforts to increase voter participation during the COVID-19 pandemic, the GOP actively sought to reduce voter participation.
When the Astros got caught cheating, US Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Il) called for congressional oversight hearings into the baseball scandal. Now it’s the nation’s professional athletes stepping forward to provide their own form of oversight of the nation’s politics, demanding action from political representatives on social justice matters and using their wealth and celebrity platform to combat voter suppression.
Michael Jordan: The Brand Gives Back
After decades of refraining from political engagement, basketball legend Michael Jordan plunged into social justice activism. Following the death of George Floyd, Jordan released a statement expressing his outrage and stating, “We have had enough.”
Days later, Jordan and the Jordan Brand pledged to donate $100 million over 10 years to social justice organizations that support racial equality. Just under two months later, he made the first of those donations, giving $1 million to the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples and their Families Movement (FICPFM), a network of more than 50 civil and human rights organizations that are led by people living with criminal records and their family members.
The FICPFM gave $500,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) to pay former felons’ fines and court fees. In 2018, after more than 60% of Florida voters agreed to a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to ex-felons in their state, the Republican legislature passed a bill requiring that the felons’ fines and fees needed to be paid before their voting rights could be restored. Despite a lawsuit to repeal the law that saw numerous twists and turns in the courts, the legislation still stands as law. Voting rights cannot be restored until felons’ fines and fees have been paid.
Jordan and the Jordan Brand gave another $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. A third donation of $500,000 went to Black Voters Matter. In a statement, Jordan said, “One of the ways we change this country’s ingrained racism is by eliminating Black voter suppression.”
Athletes Unite for More Than A Vote
Basketball’s Lebron James and Brittney Griner, football’s Patrick Mahomes, baseball’s David Price, tennis player Sloane Stephens, and dozens of other Black athletes formed More Than A Vote in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The athletes, along with several sportscasters and musicians, published an open letter on August 17, 2020 addressed to their fans in the Black community, urging them to fight against voter suppression. In the letter, they outlined several actions that, intentionally or not, suppress the vote in minority communities. They also identified some of the actions that More Than A Vote was taking to neutralize them, including
- working with cities and team owners to convert sports arenas to voting super centers as a means to maximize social distancing and minimize the threat of COVID-19 exposure while voting in-person. NBC News reported that more than 40 sports facilities were used during this year’s elections. The facilities included arenas and stadiums from the men’s and women’s basketball, football, baseball, hockey, and soccer leagues. These super centers also offered some reassurance of safer in-person voting to those worried that their mail-in ballot would not be counted. Voting by mail was under attack by the Trump administration throughout the election and has been hampered by lawsuits and the potential for high numbers of rejected ballots.
- contributing $100,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay the fines and fees of Florida felons who have otherwise served their sentence but are unable to have their voting rights restored until those payments are made.
- collaborating with partner organizations to help educate voters and share information in an effort to combat disinformation around the election.
The group encouraged fans to vote, to volunteer at the polls, to donate to organizations engaged in resisting voter suppression, and to share information to “educate, energize, and protect Black voters.” More Than A Vote joined forces with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund to recruit poll workers in majority Black districts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Loud and Clear: The Night Professional Sports Stopped
Jacob Blake’s shooting at the hands of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sparked an unprecedented moment for professional sports: Athletes chose not to play their scheduled games – some of which were playoff games – in protest of elected officials’ lack of leadership on matters of social justice.
It began with the Milwaukee Bucks, who refused to take the court for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, August 26. The National Basketball Association quickly canceled the other games scheduled for that night, and the three scheduled for the following day.
Led by the Washington Mystics, the Women’s National Basketball Association followed suit, cancelling all games on Wednesday. Players in the National Hockey League opted not to play their Stanley Cup Playoff games that Thursday and Friday.
The response by Major League Baseball players was more diverse. Led by the Milwaukee Brewers and joined by the Cincinnati Reds, several games were canceled. Other teams opted to play, but some players on those teams chose to sit out.
According to Brewers star Ryan Braun, “We saw what the Bucks decided to do, and frankly that inspired us. That motivated us.… At some point, actions speak louder than words.”
Braun said the decision was unanimous, and that the players hoped that without the distraction of a baseball game, people would have the time to educate themselves “about what’s going on in our country.”
Owners, Leagues Step Up
Unlike in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, team owners and league presidents are staying out of the way of their players’ activism, and in some cases, are actively supporting it. From endorsing players’ decisions to abstain from playing, to bending dress codes to allow players to wear t-shirts with social justice slogans, to observing a moment of silence as MLS players kneel before the start of each soccer match, owners are rising to embrace the players’ activism.
Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, needed little prodding. He supported Kaepernick’s protest and is all in on the athletes’ symbolic and substantive contributions in this tumultuous year. Unlike other sports franchise owners, Cuban is himself a vocal activist.
Others are stepping up in their own way. Most significantly in this time of COVID-19, team owners have worked with election officials to convert their sports arenas into super centers for safer, socially-distanced voting, as discussed above. Not every owner has acted swiftly or without pressure, however. In the nation’s capital, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud had to publicly chastise team ownership for its hesitation in offering the Entertainment and Sports Arena to the city for election purposes.
The arena is located in Ward 8, one of the poorest areas of the city and one that is 92% Black. Two days after Cloud, in a tweet, asked ownership to live up to its promise to serve the community around the arena, DC’s Board of Elections announced that a deal had been struck and the arena would serve as a voting super center.
Late in the spring, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Cloud delayed the announcement of her contract with Converse – the first-ever shoe deal for a women’s basketball player – and instead wrote an essay with a pointed message: “Your Silence is a Knee on My Neck”.
As the Washington Post’s Tom Boswell wrote after the August walkouts by players, “Until this week, 2020 was the year sports seemed to matter least. Now it may become the year sports matter most.”
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