The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Athletes have the power to help America get it right, and they’re using it

The Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to take the floor Wednesday for their playoff game started a chain reaction of teams and athletes speaking out. (Ashley Landis/Pool/AP)

Until this week, 2020 was the year sports seemed to matter least. Now it may become the year sports matter most. Not for games that were played but for those that weren’t — and that continue to be scrubbed as players across all major leagues show solidarity with social justice protesters in Wisconsin.

The NBA postponed its three playoff games Wednesday and did the same Thursday, though it intends to resume its postseason at some point. The NHL postponed its playoff games scheduled for Thursday and Friday. MLB went team by team — perhaps reflecting the divisions and difficulty in reaching consensus. But with three games postponed Wednesday and seven more postponed Thursday, more than half of the sport’s 30 teams joined in the national sports protest.

Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was emotional Wednesday after his team’s game, saying, “Proud of the NBA and all the people who stand for justice. You know the way I feel about all this stuff. It’s horrible. We need change. We’re people.”

By Thursday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies and Nationals, both unanimously, decided to postpone their game. “This is a humanitarian issue. It’s time to speak up,” Martinez said. “Tomorrow is Jackie Robinson Day. Jackie will be playing tomorrow.”

Most sports leagues pause with second day of protests, some more unified than others

The Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins spoke for his team, noting that the New York Mets’ Dominic Smith had broken down in sobs the previous night discussing the pervasive fear among Black people that they or their families could suffer from police brutality. “He’s a strong Black man,” said Hoskins, who is White. “If that didn’t hit you differently, well, it should hit you differently. … We’ve had team conversations this year, and things have come up that I never knew about. As a White person, we need to listen.”

Of the bonding through difficult conversations this year in MLB, where some clubhouses are divided internally, the Nationals’ Josh Harrison said: “Remember the movie ’42.’ Pee Wee Reese [a Southern White player] stood up for [Robinson] when times were tough.”

For decades, sports was a field of quiet crickets when it came to social consciousness. Until this week, the United States had never seen multiple games in several sports postponed simultaneously because athletes refused to play to call attention to injustice.

Underscoring their anger, these postponements came during the Republican National Convention. “What stands out to me, watching the Republican convention: They’re spewing this fear. … You hear Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot,” Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, son of a policeman, said Tuesday night as he grew emotional. “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

Much of the importance of these protests was in the ability of well-known athletes, such as Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, to reach White fans and get them to see entire groups of people who often remain invisible or else ignored.

In the aftermath of Jacob Blake's shooting by police in Kenosha, Wis., teams in the WNBA, NBA, MLB and other sports decided not to play games in protest. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ashley Landis/AP Photo via Pool/The Washington Post)

To illustrate, Abraham Lincoln, 19 feet tall when seated and made of marble, has his own memorial. Lincoln did not have to understand the enslaved person experience; he couldn’t, because he was White. Abe just had to understand, with the help of his conscience and his Bible, that slavery was profoundly wrong — then lead the Union in a Civil War so that the enslaved people could be emancipated.

America needs more of Lincoln’s understanding today. We White people don’t have to face the daily biases and injustices Black people experience. Nor do we have to live with the fear that we or a loved one might be choked to death or shot in the back seven times by a cop for a minor or imagined wrong. We just need to know it is profoundly wrong, and we need to stand and be counted against it.

The solution in any society in which one group oppresses another is dependent on the majority viewing the afflicted minority as fully human and then saying: “Wrong. Our fault. Must be fixed.”

Much of the progress in the United States in the past 60 years has been rolled back in the four years of Trump, who defends the Confederate flag, and a Republican Party that offers cover to racists with gaslighting.

Anybody who can crack through this political disinformation to see more of the reality of Black lives is doing a service. Ironically, it is society’s gifted entertainers — its famous movie stars, singers and athletes — who often transcend invisibility. For reasons I will leave to psychotherapists, tens of millions of Americans think of James, Rivers, Clayton Kershaw, Martinez and others who have spoken up as “real” — someone at their mental dinner table. And sometimes they are more inclined to listen.

That, in itself, is not change. But it is a precondition for change, especially the kind that outlasts headlines.

When such people speak up, their words, their facial expressions, their honest human anguish and, at times, their angry exhausted tears forge a connection with a common humanity.

To be blunt, a year of video recordings detailing police killings of Black people across the country has done more to change and galvanize opinion than anything else. Those videos, in fact, are part of why athletes now feel so strongly, almost compelled, to be counted. Deny THIS.

Obviously, countless people of all races and backgrounds have “seen” everybody in our country and truly felt that “their lives matter” for generations. This is all about shifting consensus and needed awakening.

Brewer: NBA players set a new standard of civil disobedience. Now there’s no going back.

The predominantly Black NBA always has been the most progressive league, the NFL the most right wing at the ownership level and MLB a sport in which many clubhouses trend conservative even if there is diversity within them. And MLB has gone from a sport of great Black stars long ago to a sport that is constantly and correctly scrutinized for its lack of Black players, managers and executives.

That’s why MLB voices deserve credit for backbone. They’re seldom preaching to the choir. The sport talks about equality but tends to practice indifference. Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, his team close to the violence in Kenosha, noted that players have worn Black Lives Matter shirts but “sometimes actions speak louder than words.”

In a Reese-like gesture, the great lefty Kershaw said, “If Mookie Betts plays tomorrow, the Dodgers will play.”

If Trump’s tweets are often dog whistles, then postponed games, entire leagues showing solidarity with protesters and soul-baring interviews from famous athletes about racism are a tip to the national mood. Ron Rivera, coach of the Washington Football Team, canceled Thursday’s practice — a statement. The NFL, weeks ago, supported Black Lives Matter. Athletes around the country in many sports have aligned with what the NBA began.

Trump “lost the clubhouse” of American sports months ago. Athletes, coaches and entire leagues took positions opposed to his, often openly criticizing him, ignoring the tantrums on his Twitter feed.

Now that same American clubhouse has gone from disagreement to open revulsion on the same day Trump is nominated again by his party for the presidency. No one says it. Everyone knows it.

When wealthy, famous pro athletes, a cautious group that makes about a dozen political statements per generation, fight to get to the microphone, attitudes are changing. That can be contagious.

“We’re in this together,” Phillies Manager Joe Girardi said, sitting next to the Nationals’ Martinez and speaking for the unified players on both teams. “There needs to be change in this country. This is forever.”

Read more:

Sports come to a halt: NBA, WNBA, MLB, MLS postpone games as players protest Jacob Blake shooting

Led by Chris Webber and Kenny Smith, ‘Inside the NBA’ went from pregame show to protest in real time

Jerry Brewer: For Black athletes, social unrest is not a game, and this historic action is an urgent plea

LeBron James, NBA players react with strong messages

Bill Russell led an NBA boycott in 1961. Now he’s saluting others for ‘getting in good trouble.’