“It’s amazing how social change often happens this way,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said. “We’re not even through the first half of 2020. We’re in the first half inning of the decade, but it feels like we’ve already played a whole season.”
Pervasive protests the past two weeks in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in custody of Minneapolis police have prompted sudden reexamination and overdue reckoning across all of American society. Sports has taken a prominent role in the symbolic reflection of the moment, with leagues and teams — in many cases catching up to their players — releasing statements and making gestures well beyond boilerplate.
While the motivations and long-term ramifications can be debated, what all of the sports organizations’ actions shared is the addressing of long-standing issues that had fermented in neglect.
The NFL sparked the escalation in rhetoric and action when Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video June 5 in which he said “Black Lives Matter” and, without naming ostracized San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, apologized for not listening to players who protested police brutality in previous years. On Thursday, the league pledged $250 million over 10 years “to combat systemic racism and support the battle against ongoing and historic injustices faced by African Americans.”
Other organizations have followed with dramatic shifts. The Carolina Panthers took down a statue of their former owner, Jerry Richardson, who faced allegations of sexual harassment and racism when he sold the franchise in 2018.
The Red Sox released a statement confirming an account from former outfielder Torii Hunter, who said he included a no-trade clause regarding the Red Sox in every contract he signed because he was called the n-word more than 100 times while playing at Fenway Park.
Boston has long carried a reputation as a city where black people encounter racism, which often fostered defensiveness. In 2017, when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said he was called the n-word during a game, it prompted doubt among fans and several prominent media members. Headlined, “This is real,” the message from the Red Sox this week effectively called on their fans to acknowledge the existence of racism at Fenway Park and to take actions to stop it.
The shift applied to teams on the national level. The U.S. Soccer Federation reversed a policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem, which had been instituted to coerce star Megan Rapinoe from kneeling before games, which she began in support of Kaepernick in 2016.
“It has become clear that this policy was wrong and detracted from the important message of Black Lives Matter,” U.S. Soccer’s statement read. “We have not done enough to listen — especially to our players — to understand and acknowledge the very real and meaningful experiences of Black and other minority communities in our country.”
“Everything is happening so fast, it’s kind of difficult to try to wrap your head around everything that’s going on right now,” said historian Kevin Levin, an expert in Confederate symbols. “When it comes to these divisive symbols, I think their instincts are to take the public’s pulse. I think the flag part is interesting. After the Dylann Roof shootings in 2015, there was this backlash against the flag, and we saw places — including the state house in Columbia, South Carolina — took it down. NASCAR only asked their fans to not display it. They didn’t go as far. It was more of a request. This time around, they’ve taken that extra step, and that also reflects where the country is right now.”
The messages and actions from sports leagues came in a wave prompted by external forces. Public sentiment forced action and provided business incentive for leagues to alter course. Their actions this week, some experts said, are improvements but also may be efforts to recast previous lack of action.
“In terms of race in American society, you look at Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in baseball,” said Todd Boyd, the University of Southern California’s Chair for Study of Race and Popular Culture. “I’ve often said that people want to talk about breaking the color line. They don’t want to talk about the color line.”
For some, the dramatic responses from sports organizations rang hollow. Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a lecturing fellow at Duke University who studies the intersection of sports and race, called the gestures “tokenistic” and called on leagues to provide examples of actual change.
Kalman-Lamb noted, among other examples, that the NFL made no promise of employment — let alone an apology — to Kaepernick and that the NCAA is still fighting athletes in court over their names, images and likenesses. Leagues and teams have made gestures now, Kalman-Lamb said, in response to widespread protests. He insisted it was not their views that changed but their incentives to speak out. “It feels incumbent upon them to not be swept away by those currents,” Kalman-Lamb said.
Sports can sometimes lead on social and racial issues, but experts agreed this week that they have been a reaction and reflection of where society is headed, and in some cases they were behind the times.
Greenblatt believed the messages from sports organizations would influence broader society. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, he said, the message the franchise sent hit home. NASCAR fans unmoved by protests, he said, would be forced to pause when the sport banned the flag. “What they conclude after that pause, I don’t know,” he said.
Goodell used straightforward language rarely seen from corporate entities, which may help turn truths viewed in some segments of society as radical into widely accepted facts. The statement by the Red Sox may help spark changes they have been trying to make for years, such as when they renamed a street adjacent to Fenway Park in 2018 that had honored Tom Yawkey, a former owner who resisted integration.
The actions from sports organizations this week also carried hints of financial motivation. Societal views have flipped since 2017, when the NFL tried to tamp down protests after President Trump attacked the players and television ratings dipped. Experts took the renewed stances as a sign it would be bad business not to speak out in stronger terms against ingrained racism.
Kalman-Lamb pointed to one predictor of the current climate: when Nike signed Kaepernick to an endorsement contract and created a signature shoe for him in 2018.
“That tells us everything we need to know about the market evaluation these organization are doing,” Kalman-Lamb said. “Nike understands they have more revenue to earn by aligning with anti-racism than as to against. These leagues and teams understand the same thing.”
Will that lesson apply to a different brand of racism at the core of some franchises’ identities? The Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs have made no recent statement regarding chants and “tomahawk chop” motions, which are considered derogatory by many.
The Washington Redskins released a statement through Coach Ron Rivera in support of the Black Lives Matter movement while saying they would permit protest during the national anthem. But they have made no mention of the team nickname. When the team posted an image of a black square on its Twitter feed in conjunction with #BlackOutTuesday, a torrent of replies questioned its nickname.
The symbols and statements emanating from the sports world have focused on anti-black racism, a reflection of the focus of current protests. But those statements could lead franchises with Native American iconography to feel pressure to make changes they have resisted.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has said he would never change the nickname, telling a USA Today reporter in 2013 he could write it in all caps. It has for years been unthinkable, but two weeks ago the NFL apologizing to players for how it handled their protests or the Confederate flag being banned at NASCAR events may have been, too.
“You can dig in and be defensive,” Boyd said. “But the cost to being defensive might change. Eventually, it becomes bad for business to maintain such things.
“So I guess it depends. Some things are a certain way for a very, very long time, and all of a sudden, they’re not. And then you say: ‘Wow. That just happened.’ ”