However, one of Floyd’s most lasting legacies may well be his impact on the sports world. As a former athlete, his life story, which had a special meaning for a generation of athletes, underscored the fine line separating athletic heroes and victims of police violence. His death cemented a new generation of athletes as activists against police violence and professional sports leagues, at minimum, as performative allies. The history of athlete activism reminds us that this movement is one of radical possibility.
Floyd was a two-sport athlete in Houston’s 3rd Ward, a historically Black district. Like many Black youths, Floyd started playing organized sports in his preteen years. Then, he played basketball and football at Jack Yates High School before he graduated in 1993 and earned a college scholarship to play basketball for two years at South Florida Community College (now South Florida State College).
“George was idolized by young boys living in the projects because he was the first guy that many of us witnessed get an athletic scholarship where we grew up,” Eddy Barlow told Jerry Bembry of ESPN’s “The Undefeated.” For Barlow, Floyd was a role model who capitalized on the opportunities that sports presented to attain what many never do — a chance to keep playing into adulthood.
For many athletes, life after sports is a challenge, and Floyd was no exception. Over the course of the 20th century, a small number of athletes have attained sufficient status to demand full citizenship beyond their playing days. But most face the reality of what Harry Edwards described in the 1969 “Revolt of the Black Athlete.” “The Black athlete simply falls by the wayside or takes his press clippings, trophies, awards, and his four years of irrelevant education and looks for any job he can find.”
What’s worse is that some of the same physical characteristics and traits that garnered cheers in a stadium are known triggers for racist police violence in the streets.
For example, a 2018 study revealed that “for Black men, being tall increases threat stereotyping and police stops,” which held true during the Chauvin trial. One of the central arguments made by Chauvin’s defense was the “force is unattractive” theory, which argued that “police use of force can look horrifying on bystander video, but that’s a necessary part of the job for police officers.” Chauvin’s defense attorney, Eric Nelson, repeatedly referenced the size difference between his client and Floyd. In the audio captured on Chauvin’s body camera after Floyd left in an ambulance, Chauvin told a bystander, “We had to control this guy because he’s a sizable guy.”
This double-edged sword of size has been an unfortunate reality for many Black athletes, not just Floyd. As sport historian Louis Moore mapped out, Black athletes have experienced excessive police force since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1967, for example, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) said: “I’m a big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s all-American. Well, last summer I was almost killed by a racist cop shooting at a Black cat [person] in Harlem.”
Although Black athletes have often been targets of police violence, they haven’t always been outspoken activists bringing attention to the issue. In the mid-20th century, Black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Abdul-Jabbar did speak out against police violence. For example, Robinson called attention to police brutality during his 1949 House Un-American Activities Committee testimony before Congress.
But then from the 1980s to the 2010s, this kind of activism became rare. This was not because police violence in Black communities diminished, but because for many Black athletes, the risk did not outweigh the unprecedented financial rewards they started to acquire. In an interview with sportswriter Howard Bryant, the Rev. Al Sharpton recalled, “In the 1980s and ‘90s, when we started with Howard Beach in ’86, all the way through Bensonhurst and Yusuf Hawkins, all the way through Abner Louima in the ‘90s, there was no support either publicly or privately from athletes.” Sharpton added, “I led mobilizations, including Rodney King in L.A., and [athletes] were not there, not even privately.”
That began to change in the 2010s, especially once Black Lives Matter offered a movement framework to inform their positions.
In 2020, Floyd’s death turned many more athletes into activists. Perhaps no athlete felt the impact of Floyd’s death more directly than Stephen Jackson. The now-retired NBA champion had been friends with Floyd since the mid-1990s, before he was drafted into the NBA. Jackson and Floyd referred to each other as “twin,” not only because of a resemblance but also a shared experience. Jackson told Marc Stein of the New York Times that he and Floyd were “‘going down the same road” in their youth, spending time “in the same neighborhoods, in the same cars, doing the same things.” Jackson committed to staying in Minneapolis throughout the Chauvin trial and has used his various platforms to speak out against police violence.
Indeed, athletes in nearly every sport — and at every level — have used their platforms to protest police violence since Floyd’s murder. And in doing so, they have pushed their respective leagues and franchises to join their efforts for social justice — something that has not traditionally happened.
Though the NFL’s initial statement felt disingenuous given the fact that Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned since he first took a knee in August 2016 in protest of police killings, some individual franchises have followed their players’ lead. For example, the Minnesota Vikings’ owners “announced a $5 million commitment to fighting hate, racism and inequality. $1 million was specifically to be directed by the social justice committee, which any interested player can join.” They also donated $250,000 to and partnered with All Square, a nonprofit social enterprise that invests in formerly incarcerated individuals in Minneapolis, as well as started an endowment for an annual George Floyd Legacy Scholarship.
Even MLS, which has been relatively mum in the past, followed its statement with a financial commitment to Black Players for Change, an independent organization of over 170 players, coaches and staff from the league that “strives to advance the attention on human right inequalities from protest to programs, partnerships and policies that address systemic racism.”
Organized efforts like More Than a Vote, an organization of Black athletes and artists, have also maintained their commitment to social justice. Since it launched last June, More Than a Vote played a critical role in increasing voter turnout for the presidential election.
However, as activist and human rights attorney Derecka Purnell expressed, “voting didn’t stop the police killings.” And, neither did Chauvin’s conviction. Since the fired Minneapolis police officer was convicted, the police have killed more than 60 people in the United States. Perhaps now more than ever, professional athletes could make an impact by using their platforms to make more transformational requests such as defunding the police or, at least, ending qualified immunity.
In 1969, Edwards wrote, “America’s response to what the Black athlete is saying and doing will undoubtedly not only determine the future course and direction of American athletics, but also will affect all racial and social relations between Blacks and whites in this country.” And more than 50 years later, perhaps we have reached an opportunity for a new response.
If sports are a microcosm of society, one can only hope that Gigi Floyd was right that her daddy changed the world.