Sullivan: Welcome to a new golden age of activist athletes

Jerry Sullivan

Early in February of 2017, in one of those breakout interviews at the team hotel during Super Bowl week, I had an animated discussion with Marcellus Bennett, then a tight end for the Patriots and one of the more outspoken players in the NFL.

This was at the end of the season when Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick first began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against Black men in America.

I asked Bennett if he wished he had been around in the 1960s, when athletes like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took stands for racial justice. He said he and his brother, Michael, talked about those giants all the time.

Bennett admired those athletes for having the courage to use their voices at a critical time in the history of civil rights. He rued the fact that so few modern players were willing to take a stand, to use their platform and raise their voices for social justice. But he was hopeful.

“There’s going to be a moment in time, soon enough, where I think the conversation is going to be held by several athletes," Bennett said. "It's coming very soon, I can tell you that.”

He was right. A year later, several NFL players knelt in support of Kaepernick as President Trump dismissed them as “sons of bitches.” NBA players began speaking out, too. LeBron James discussed racial issues and ripped Trump in early 2018, after racial slurs were painted on his house in Los Angeles.

After James made his comments in an interview with Cari Champion (then with ESPN), journalist Laura Ingraham said LeBron should “shut up and dribble.” She said she wasn’t interested in taking advice from “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”

The moment Bennett anticipated truly arrived this past week. Shut up and dribble? On Wednesday, the NBA players boycotted that day's playoffs in the Orlando bubble to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Several Major League teams followed suit. So did the NHL on Thursday night. There were boycotts in the WNBA, whose players have been especially vocal about racial injustice and were wearing shirts with seven bullet holes painted on the back. There were protests in professional tennis and soccer.

Muhammad Ali would have been proud to see it. Granted, these modern athletes weren’t risking as much as Ali did in 1966, when he refused induction in the Army and lost three and a half years of his boxing career in his absolute prime.

Some of the most powerful figures in the NBA have raised their voices. Kenny Smith walked off the TNT set. Chris Webber gave an emotional interview. Clippers coach Doc Rivers was close to tears talking about the white culture's “fear” of Black men, and their historic mistreatment.

There’s been a predictable cry for the athletes and commentators to “stick to sports.” It’s one sports writers hear as well when they have the audacity to stray outside the lines of the games. I’ve heard it many times myself.

When I retweeted the Doc Rivers press conference, one such simplistic reply came from a guy who said, “This country that doesn’t love Doc Rivers, but provided him the opportunity to live his dream and become a multimillionaire playing a game?”

Yeah, if a Black man is fortunate enough to succeed in America and become wealthy, he forfeits his right to speak out about injustice. He gets bought off, in a sense. I know some athletes are troubled by the idea that money buys their silence and distances them from their cultural roots.

But NBA players are motivated by a powerful desire to make a difference, to give voice to the voiceless in society. As James and others said, how much is enough? Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake. Where does it all stop?

What we’re hearing are statements of conscience. That’s what the “stick to sports” crowd refuses to understand — or is afraid to acknowledge. It’s not money that’s moving these players, it’s conscience, the recognition that they have the power, platform and duty to demand change.

Stick to sports? It’s conscience that’s utterly lacking in our national leadership, in a President who fans the flames of racial hatred for his own benefit and has the nerve to say that the NBA is a “political organization” that’s bad for the nation.

Funny, it was OK for the wealthy to make bold political stands back in 1989, when Trump took out ads in the New York City papers calling for the death penalty after five Black teenagers, the Central Park Five, were accused of a vicious assault — wrongly, as it turned out.

Athletes can become fabulously rich in this culture. But as the Bills’ Jerry Hughes said Thursday, once you take off the uniform and walk down the street, you’re just another Black man, as anyone who has been pulled over by cops for no discernible reason can attest.

The Bucks’ ignited the protests by boycotting Wednesday's game. They were led by veteran George Hill and Sterling Brown, who was handcuffed and tased by Milwaukee police in early 2018 after being issued a parking ticket outside a drug store.

The arresting office was later fired for making racial comments about Brown on social media. Brown and Hill want the cop who shot Blake held accountable.

“For this to occur, it’s imperative for the Wisconsin State Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform,” Hill said.

As Martellus Bennett predicted, the moment in time has arrived. We’ll find out soon whether the NFL players will raise their voices in a similar fashion, after a somewhat reluctant and short-lived response during the height of the Kaepernick controversy.

Roger Goodell has admitted the NFL was wrong not to listen more to the players at the time. Talk about a failure of conscience. He couldn’t bring himself to mention Kaepernick’s name, perhaps out of concern about litigation against his league.

NBA players ultimately decided to go back and finish the playoffs. They wondered if it was right to keep playing games, if it's frivolous to be a source of entertainment in the midst of a pandemic and an epidemic of violence against Black men.

Ultimately, their voices resonate loudest when they’re playing the games, when they have a platform and a willing media to hear their message. You can be sure they’ll be talking about more than fast breaks and sticking 3-pointers.

Sticking to sports? We’re well beyond that now. Deal with it.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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