As we attempt to have difficult conversations, contrition is now as necessary a part of life as hand sanitizer. Keep it on you at all times. And, well, good luck handling both of America’s pandemics. Thoughts and prayers.
Fangio is far from the only person to try to absolve sports from prejudice. Much like Drew Brees, the coach just picked an awful time to sound so simple. Plenty of people love to describe the world of athletics in utopian terms, using words such as “colorblind” and “open-minded” and “meritocracy.” They’re not wrong to regard their realm as better than the so-called real world. But they should resist generalizations that dismiss long-standing problems such as diversity in the coaching and executive ranks and fair pay for juggernaut women’s national teams.
In addition, they should recognize the powerful benefit of offering greater insight into their successes: a blueprint for a higher level of acceptance. There is no magic to explain away why sports is often ahead of the societal curve. It happens because of the hard work of competitive people who are not afraid of confrontation and exist in an environment that demands discipline, introspection and evolution.
Sports can be a meritocracy. Teams often reject the relevance of people’s differences because cohesion is so tied to victory. But you want to know the secret? Conflict.
As the nation struggles through racial unrest over the issue of police brutality, we’re trying to start a conversation. In team sports, such communication never stops. The relationships are deep and not transactional because, when functioning properly, they don’t avoid talking about difficult things, and they know issues usually aren’t resolved with a single discussion. The best teams have athletes who are consistently trying to understand one another a little better.
“You’re vulnerable,” said Lindsay Whalen, the former star point guard who is now the head women’s coach at Minnesota, her alma mater. “You make mistakes. You have to come together and say, ‘How do we work through this?’ Once everybody has a chance to get that out, you’re so able to move forward. Maybe it leads to tears, hugs, curse words — whatever is needed. When you have those conversations, it feels like a 1,000-pound weight is off your shoulders.
“We need that in society. When conflict comes up, you learn to apologize and move on and truly mean it. In all of my years, when we won championships, we had to have a team meeting or some conversation like that. And in the years we didn’t, we failed.”
I called Whalen last week, just before every person and institution with a social media account started declaring their humanity after the recent wave of lethal police force, including the terrifying killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was interesting to me that, in this moment, white athletes, coaches and executives finally joined their black colleagues in large numbers. Quarterbacks Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence and Carson Wentz were direct and strong in denouncing racism. Hordes followed. Even Tom Brady, an agnostic superstar when it comes to social issues, lent his praying emoji to the movement.
Why now? For one, with sports on pause because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, athletes aren’t living in their happy little bubble and tuning out the rest of the world. And because physical and financial suffering is so widespread, most everyone has a more compassionate mind-set. But most notable is that these athletes, almost all of whom work in predominantly black locker rooms, tapped into what they have learned over years of living in a diverse environment.
They knew a line had been crossed. They knew the accumulation of senseless death was too much to bear. They could sense the frustration, disappointment and sadness was about to turn into rage. And after years of black athletes wondering why more of their white co-workers don’t speak up, they finally comprehended that their silence was part of the problem. This is no time to praise the awakening of white people, but that doesn’t mean the effort, no matter how late, has gone unappreciated. In her stirring essay in the Players’ Tribune, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud referenced the importance of superstar Elena Delle Donne taking a stand. “It made me feel a little less powerless in this world,” Cloud wrote.
On her list of accomplishments, Whalen can boast four WNBA championships, two Olympic gold medals and a legacy as one of the best point guards in her sport’s history. Yet when she reflects upon her basketball blessings, she starts elsewhere.
“I’m thankful for the perspective above all else,” she said. “As much as basketball has given me championships, money and the opportunity to travel the world, perspective is what truly matters.”
Whalen lives 15 minutes from where Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds. It saddens her that her home has a negative spotlight on it. But she’s not myopic.
Basketball has taken her from Hutchinson, Minn., a town of about 14,000 that is 95 percent white, to locker rooms in which she was the only white person. She invested in her teammates, learned from her teammates and even protested with her teammates four years ago. In July 2016, before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, the Minnesota Lynx wore black T-shirts demanding justice for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. As one of four team captains, Whalen stood alongside Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson in explaining their protest.
“I had never really spoken out about much in life,” Whalen said. “But I had to. It was wrong what was happening. It’s still wrong. I’m thankful that I did something with the platform I was given.”
Whalen started to open her eyes in 2012, after Augustus accused a police officer in Roseville, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, of racial profiling. Whalen still can hear Augustus and a teammate recounting their anger and fear the next day in the locker room. The issue became real and personal.
“I’m sitting there with my head lowered and shaking it, like, ‘This is wrong,’ ” Whalen said. “If I’m driving through Roseville, I don’t have that fear. For me, it was like: ‘How can I not say something and stand up? These are like sisters to me, and they’re hurting.’ I won’t understand what they had to go through, but if I can be a part of a movement that helps them not have to fear getting pulled over, that’s what I hope for.
“We put our blood, sweat and tears into basketball together, and we know we’re all human. No human being deserves to be treated like that.”
There is racism in sports. There is discrimination of all forms. But there is also conflict resolution, empathy and connection.
Differences aren’t banished from the locker room. They are embraced, then transcended and often joked about, everything from an athlete’s accent to his mangled feet.
Such a level of acceptance should not be oversimplified. It is extraordinary. It is hard to achieve. And, undeniably, it is worth all the required maintenance.