Long ago, Malcolm X warned us to be wary of settling for symbolic victories, rather than justice and real progress.
“The whole world can see you,” he said during a speech in 1963. “All that little tokenism that is hanging in front of the black man and then he said, ‘Look what we are doing for you.’”
And so, like clockwork, when protests against racism have swept the country in recent months, the sports gesture machine has reversed. The Boston Red Sox presented a 250-foot billboard by Black Lives Matter close to Fenway Park; players will be greeted with a message from the Black Lives Matter every time they carry NHL 20; the NBA and WNBA released the Black Lives Matter logos in their courts before the season restarts in Florida; on the opening day of the MLB, players and coaches knelt before the national anthem and teams threw a drive message; and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that the league was wrong in players’ protests and encouraged players to use their voices to speak out against racism and police brutality.
At first, I thought all of these gestures were great. Sports teams, leagues and high-ranking officials condemned the murder of George Floyd, and declaring that Black Lives really matter. Nor were they generic and bland statements: they went into details that you don’t normally see.
For example, the Dallas Mavericks said: “We will NOT stand up for injustice, inequality and disparity. The story goes through phases. Phases of restoration (justice), reconstruction (communities) and recovery (as people). “
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat made a point of specifically naming victims of police violence. “We deeply regret the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, which we lost through acts of extreme and excessive violence against African Americans,” the team said in a statement.
Every NBA team made a similar statement. And so I have to give the league commissioner Adam Silver a lot of credit for setting an example. From the moment he took the reins and had to deal with the situation of Donald Sterling, he made it clear that he will defend justice and take a stand against racism.
Was this a new beginning, I wondered? How beautiful that the whole world of sport has finally reached a universal point of empathy. But then I noticed that police violence seems to have worsened after the assassination of George Floyd, while hate crimes against people of color really increased during the pandemic.
Now, I wonder if these admittedly admirable statements are enough. Can these teams and their billionaire CEOs? I do not use the term “owner” for obvious reasons – use your power and influence to bring about tangible changes in addition to statements of support and solidarity? Definitely.
What if NBA CEOs took proactive roles in their respective cities and pressured police departments to move towards specific reforms and more accountability? It’s not like men like Mark Cuban in Dallas or Micky Arison in Miami were without influence in the cities where their teams play. They are billionaires. Not millionaires like the players who are doing an incredible job of protest, but billionaires (with a B) on every other level of power and influence.
And if they followed the recent example of FedEx, which showed the power of money in combating racism.
Dan Snyder, the majority owner of the Washington NFL team, stubbornly refused to change his franchise’s racist nickname for years, despite calls from Native Americans that were insulting. Then, a few weeks ago, he had a sudden change of heart. Because? Not because he had a moment of clarity from Ebenezer Scrooge and wanted to correct his mistakes. This was because FedEx, a sponsor that paid $ 205 million for the naming rights at the team’s stadium, threatened to cut its funding.
Wu-Tang once told us that money dominates everything around me and they were absolutely right.
What if NBA CEOs and their teams used their influence to pressure cities to threaten to cut funding from police departments if they didn’t take tangible measures of reform and accountability? I bet you would see results as immediate as what you just saw in Washington.
This could be done across the sporting world, not just in the NBA. Teams can act for real, with real results, instead of waiting for players (who don’t have the same caliber of influence) to “talk” about these issues.
Let me clarify: no one wants to abolish the police completely, but every organization needs checks and balances. Nobody in society should have carte blanche to do what they want and, unfortunately, this is the incredibly dysfunctional situation we fall into with our police departments.
Statements are great. Painting the material of black lives painted on courts and fields is a bold statement. And I think playing the black national anthem before the NFL games is … something. But we need to go far beyond that in order to bring about real changes.
The situation reminds me of a conversation I had with Tiffany Crutcher, whose brother, Terence Crutcher, was killed by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“We were moved at the moment … we are angry, we are indignant, and then we move on to the next thing,” she told me when I interviewed her for my book, We Matter: Athletes And Activism. “We are going to put pressure on them, not just the local government, but we need to put pressure on Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump, and let them know that we are not going to accept that.”
Who better applies this pressure than the billionaire CEOs of professional teams and the sports leagues themselves. They can use their influence in addition to powerful proclamations and push for tangible results. The statements are great, but today we need a lot more.