In this year of unrelenting American strife, athletes bringing attention to the crippling issues of systemic racism and police brutality have been built into the pregame routine and the postgame conversation. Questions are as likely to focus on racial profiling as run-scoring doubles.
But what’s more important than what those athletes are doing is whom they’re reaching. They’re reaching the kids.
“What he does, what he says on social media, we read that,” Matthew Harden said of James. “We don’t follow business leaders of teams, so seeing what the players say is all we see, actually.”
Over the course of the summer and into the fall, there has been considerable power in watching NFL players link arms in unity as the names of victims scroll across videoboards. There has been emotion in watching the New York Mets and Miami Marlins lay a Black Lives Matter T-shirt over home plate just before they walked off the field, refusing to play in the days after Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police in Wisconsin. There has been a resonance in listening to Tim Anderson, the Chicago White Sox shortstop, speak out plainly: “The world needs to change.”
But it’s more powerful and emotional and resonant when you hear how that’s being processed at ground level.
“When they left the shirt on home plate,” Daniel Marshall Jr. said, “it was really powerful. That’s something that really stuck with me.”
“I heard Tim Anderson say it’s bigger than politics — it’s not politics,” Langston Speed said. “It’s basic human rights. And the fact that we have to say we matter is kind of concerning. We shouldn’t have to say we matter. We should say that we’re needed.”
Harden is 15 and lives in Greenbelt. Marshall and Speed are 14 and live in the District. They are students and young Black men. They are baseball players at three different high schools and teammates at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast, where there has been as much discussion these days about the political and social unrest in the country as there has been about getting in front of a grounder.
They are kids, kids with athletic heroes. But they are also listeners and thinkers, and Lord knows 2020 brings a lot to listen to and think about. There was George Floyd, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis. There was Taylor, dead at the hands of police in Louisville. There was Ahmaud Arbery, shot while jogging near his own neighborhood in Georgia. There was Blake, shot by police in Kenosha, Wis. Process that, kids.
“Just feeling anger and just, like, disappointment,” Langston said. “Because it keeps happening and keeps happening, and it was still happening. I can’t even say I was shocked.”
Hearing that, from a 14-year-old, is knee-buckling. But this is where the athletes come in. They are, it’s clear, fostering discussion. Put aside that there are people who believe the Black Lives Matter logo written on the court in the NBA bubble is a disgrace, that there are people who still — right now, in 2020 — believe James shouldn’t continue to speak so forcefully and thoughtfully, as he did Tuesday following a Lakers loss in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
“I just said that what’s going on in our community is not okay,” James said. “And we fear for that, and we fear for our lives. It’s something that we go on every single day as a Black man and a Black woman and a Black kid, a Black girl. We fear. We fear that moment when we’re pulled over.”
Now forget for a moment who’s saying that. Think about who’s listening to it.
“It makes me think almost not that I have to do something about it but I also want to do something about it,” Harden said Tuesday evening, sitting at a table outside the Nats academy, mask on. “I had a discussion the other day, actually. Being part of the new generation puts us in a very important and powerful place to make a change. We’re going to be the ones teaching our younger ones.”
They are watching. They are learning. And one day, they will be educating. The athletes’ actions resonate. The athletes’ actions are being discussed and dissected. The athletes’ actions matter — and inspire.
“LeBron, I respect his decision,” Marshall said. “But some of these protests aren’t really preventing anything because a lot of people are still passing away because of this stuff. Me, I’m trying to figure out a way that I can help stop it or gather some of the community and make ways to stop all this from happening in our world and make it a better place because this stuff isn’t easy to watch. Every day. You’re seeing it every day.”
With the country roiling, the leaders at the Nationals academy — which, in normal times, provides after-school and summer programming to hundreds of kids, mostly from the District’s Ward 7 and 8 — had to decide how to help their students process everything, in the midst of a pandemic to boot. “We can’t just conduct business as usual with our families and say, ‘Practice tomorrow at 3,’ ” said Nick Sussman, the academy’s director of baseball and softball operations.
After the August shooting of Blake — which caused the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies, among other teams, to jointly sit out a game in protest — coaches set up an informal, optional Zoom call. They turned it over to several Black coaches. They talked. Those discussions have continued before or after practices, which resumed over the summer.
“I don’t think anybody here — including the coaches — would ever shy away from this topic,” Harden said. “It’s not strict. Anybody can say something about it. It’s normal.”
Which is the kind of safe, nurturing environment we all need to talk about this stuff. Say what you think. Say what you have experienced — and Harden, Marshall and Speed have firsthand accounts of racist or prejudiced behavior. Talking about it, that’s what the athletes want to foster.
“When it comes to the actual players, we pay attention to what they say a lot,” Harden said. “I feel like that’s because those are the people we look up to. We kind of want to act like them, too. If it came from, say, a general manager or an owner, we would see it from a business standpoint, something just to keep the public satisfied.”
This is a new, unprecedented era of athlete activism. That’s obvious if you watch the games and listen to the interviews. But when you listen to the generation growing up in this maelstrom, it’s clear how important it is that the players remain undeterred. These kids are listening. Some will grow into professional athletes themselves. If the drum keeps beating, they’ll grow up never knowing that anyone would question their right — their obligation — to speak up.