While athletes and teams in a variety of sports were conducting work stoppages Thursday to protest racial injustice in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went ahead with their practice Thursday, albeit not without some discussion beforehand. Afterward, Bucs Coach Bruce Arians offered something of a hot take, particularly in the context of the unprecedented events taking place across the sports landscape.
“Your responsibility is to take action,” Arians said. “I don’t know that protest is an action. I think each guy has a personal thing.
“I would beg them to take action, find a cause and either support it financially or do something to change the situation, because protesting doesn’t do crap, in my opinion. I’ve been seeing it since 1968.”
Later on Thursday, the head of the NFL Players Association offered a very simple response: John Lewis.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it’s clear he is woefully misinformed about the history of protest both within sports and in America,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said of Arians on Twitter. Smith used a pointing symbol to highlight a pair of photos of Lewis, offering to Arians, “for starters,” the example of the late civil rights leader and congressman.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but it’s clear he is woefully misinformed about the history of protest both within sports and in America. 👇🏿 for starters. https://t.co/wXN71ZkUWj pic.twitter.com/uo7d9BQbUa— DeMaurice Smith (@DeSmithNFLPA) August 27, 2020
Lewis, who died last month at 80, first rose to prominence in the early 1960s as the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which helped organize sit-ins and demonstrations throughout the South. He was just 23 when he spoke before thousands at the March on Washington, a massive demonstration that set the stage for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1965, Lewis led a march for voting rights from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery, but he and others were brutally beaten by police as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Images of that assault horrified many across the country and helped spur the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Athletes today aren’t necessarily risking life and limb by staging protests — if anything, NFL players are sparing themselves some harm by canceling practices — but according to a professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, their platforms give them “a unique role to play” in effecting change.
“Their protest reaches ordinary people in the United States and worldwide,” Linda Greene said via email Thursday. “Their protest also touches and concerns the multibillion dollar interests of coaches, franchises, and media and other corporations, including advertisers, who depend on their labor.”
Greene, a former college track athlete who has provided legislative expertise for the United States Olympic Committee and is a co-founder of the Black Women in Sport Foundation, said that actions by players in the NFL, NBA and elsewhere are sending a message that “the games will not go on as long as police murder Black people in their homes (Breonna Taylor) and in the streets (George Floyd et. al).”
Regarding Arians’s claim that players should “take action,” rather than stage protests, Greene said there certainly are other ways athletes can work toward change, including meeting with decision-makers and offering their views on issues such as “under what conditions police officers should be prosecuted for using deadly force.”
“But their leverage is that they sit at the intersection of powerful, multibillion dollar interests,” she added in a phone interview. “And if they threaten to remove their labor from those interests, or when they refrain from offering their labor, they actually incite a conversation at the highest levels of society about the importance of social injustice.”
Mary Frances Berry, a professor of American Social Thought and of History at the University of Pennsylvania, took issue with Arians’s assertion that from what he’s been observing since 1968, “protesting doesn’t do crap.” In an email Thursday, she cited several examples as “evidence that since 1968 persistent nonviolent protest by enough people can spur political action.”
Such examples included “the Free South Africa Movement that helped to gain U.S. government sanctions against the South Africa government that helped to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid.” In addition, Berry wrote, “Organized protests by people with disabilities and their supporters led politicians to enact the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.”
“Sure, it helps the cause of justice to choose a project and support it financially, as LeBron James and other athletes do,” Berry said. “But nonviolent protest is an essential ingredient of politics.”
Bruce Arians bringing the heat today. Says his team can take action, as long as it has something to do with change, but not just to "take a day off"— Daren Stoltzfus (@DarenStoltzfus) August 27, 2020
"Protesting doesn't do crap in my opinion. Been seeing it since 1968." #GoBucs #NBA #NFL pic.twitter.com/h0sPrA9qrC
The wave of refusals to play or practice began Wednesday with the Milwaukee Bucks, who normally play about 45 minutes north of where Blake was shot seven times in the back from close range by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. After they declined to take the court for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic at the NBA’s “bubble” near Orlando, the league postponed all three of its postseason contests that evening and three more scheduled for Thursday.
The NHL and WNBA followed suit by postponing their upcoming slates, and games have been called off in MLB and MLS. In the NFL, the Washington Football Team, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals were among teams that canceled or postponed practices Thursday.
“You come away realizing and recognizing that these are young men that shouldn’t have to worry about these types of things,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said of a meeting, rather than a practice, he had with players Thursday. “And unfortunately they do, and it’s something that needs to be corrected so that people can go about their lives in a manner where they’re free — they truly are free — of having any fear of anything.”
At a Bucs team meeting before players elected to go ahead with practice Thursday, running back LeSean McCoy said (via the Tampa Bay Times) that they discussed “what was the best way to get our message across and be productive.”
“We say these things, say this and say that. We want to actually go out there and be productive, as a group, as a unit, of all colors and all teammates, to try to make a difference,” he said. “The tough part is there’s no real answer for the questions yet.”
“Not practicing, what does that really do?” McCoy added. “We want a real statement.”
“If they want to do something, we’ll do it, as long as it’s something that’s going to have something to do with change, and not just taking a day off,” Arians said.
One thing that the increased activism by players has accomplished, said Greene, is to help leagues realize that “if they are perceived as being in opposition to the social justice interests of not only Black players, but the players who join with them, that there is an economic cost that they might pay.”
There is also evidence the protests that have taken place nationwide since the killing of Floyd in May have helped shift opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement and on issues of policing and race.
All of which filled Lewis with hope in the final months of his life.
“To see all of the young people — Black, White, Latino, Asian American, Native American — standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march,” he said in June, “they’re going to help redeem the soul of America.”