Black Lives Matter And The Sports World Is Finally Listening To That Fact

Sports leagues are discovering an American public that finally and vocally supports the Black Lives Matter movement.

There’s a revolution taking place. You can hear it in the apologies for past admonishments and see it in the tweets promising to listen.

In a matter of months the world has shifted, paradigms thought ineradicable a few weeks ago have been shattered.

Michael Che’s stand-up bit from 2016 has been making the rounds lately, and it's as good as a place as any to illustrate the wide chasm in public opinion that stretches from four years ago. 

“We can’t even agree on black lives matter,” Che begins. “That’s a controversial statement. Black lives matter. Not matters more than you, just matters.”

And it was extremely controversial.

A Seismic Shift

In 2016, the WNBA initially fined three teams that donned plain black shirts in a show of solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The fine was later rescinded.

It’s just one instance of many that the world has moved in microwave time, smoothing over issues that were so obvious a few years ago but were instead rebuffed with vehemence.

Following the tragic and public death of George Floyd the world pushed back to again say they’ve had enough.

On a whole, not just in the sports space, Americans have made a remarkable pivot on the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

They've also shifted their views on the possibility of seeing athletes take a knee during the national anthem, as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick did in 2016.

According to the New York Times, what started as a gradual increase in positive feelings toward the movement in 2018 has been a dramatic change over the last two weeks.

Citing data from online survey firm Civiqs, the New York Times discovered, “Over the last two weeks, support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years.”

The same report cites a Monmouth poll that showed a marked increase in Americans who consider racism to be a serious problem in this country: “76% of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points from 2015,” the New York Times states.

The Undefeated ran a Survey Monkey poll of over 5,600 people in February 2019 and found that 59% of Black respondents supported kneeling during the National Anthem while only 24% of whites did.

More telling, the question of Jerry Jones forbidding any Dallas Cowboy from taking a knee during the anthem came up. The Undefeated found that 52% of White respondents supported the owner’s decision strongly.

These were the kinds of numbers the movement was up against. The majority of white America was staunchly against the most basic form of protest afforded star athletes.

AllBucs’ Luke Easterling ran his own Twitter poll, a snapshot of where we’re at in June of 2020.

On the anecdotal front, we have a sports world that is now offering positive support for those who proclaim that black lives matter.

What's odd is that nothing has changed in the rhetoric. BLM has been and continues to be a champion of their cause without diminishing or belittling the lives of others.

But against the backdrop of a global pandemic, with millions of Americans already clinging to uncertainty and a new normal in their everyday business ventures, something tragic happened.

George Floyd’s death ignited a wave of protests from millions who had had enough. Only this time, those in power are listening. They can no longer cling to polls that assure them the status quo is safe. 2020 annihilated the status quo.

And it’s precisely because public sentiment has shifted that we see leagues begin to backtrack on their previous admonishments and apathetic silence.

The Sports World’s Growing Pains

Drew Brees didn’t check the temperature of the room when he was asked about NFL players possibly kneeling in the future to which he answered he would “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.”

He essentially said the same thing in 2016 when he decried the method Kaepernick took when he peacefully protested police brutality and inequality when he took a knee during the national anthem at games.

The difference now is that he was immediately lambasted for what had turned into a socially unacceptable opinion.

Society has caught up to realize kneeling in solemnity before a game was a powerful gesture, not an unpatriotic one.

Brees not only immediately apologized for his remarks but rebuked President Donald Trump who supported Brees’ initial statement.

“To Donald Trump,” Brees began. “Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been. We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities."

And it’s no consolation, especially as there is tremendous work to be done, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, doing something that would have been unthinkable in 2016, issued a statement that read in part: “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people…We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Whether from a measure of the changing polls and shifting winds or an honest change of heart and mind doesn’t matter, the NFL is officially ready to listen.

The U.S. Soccer Federation, previously firm in its resolve that players who represent the country should stand for the anthem also did a public pirouette.

“Going forward it will be up to the players to determine how they want to use their platforms to fight racism, discrimination and inequality,” the federation said, according to Reuters.

Which brings us to NASCAR, a sport that is normally festooned with Confederate flags or at least fans who wouldn’t find anything particularly offensive about the symbol.

Dan Wetzel wrote about the affinity and zeal NASCAR fans have for the flag in a profile published in 2006.

As mentioned in the article, he spoke with 30 major drivers at the time, asking them to comment on the Confederate flag. He managed just one response at the time, a lukewarm sentiment from Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nearly 30 drivers walked away without so much as a comment on the matter.

Fast forward to earlier this week when Bubba Wallace, the circuits’ only Black full-time driver, demanded that the sport ban all Confederate flags.

On Wednesday, NASCAR did just that.

This isn’t to say we live in a post-racial utopia. Far from it. There remains tremendous push back even to a thing like NASCAR banning a relic of a horrendous time.

But take a spin on Twitter or read thoughts from drivers like Ray Ciccarelli and you quickly realize that there are still those who would rather cozy up and snuggle with symbols of racial bigotry than take a step back and consider that maybe things have been far from perfect.

Things in this country have never been great for a large section of the population. And the least we can do, just under banning something like the Confederate flag, is listen.

The country is starting to learn how.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with James Worthy. He mentioned that the recent string of protests felt different.

“I think this is different than anything I've seen in my lifetime,” Worthy told me. “I think this will be the beginning of conversations that a lot of white people have been afraid to have but they know it's true.”

But I’m also reminded of what the L.A. Sparks’ Tierra Ruffin-Pratt had to say to those still seeking justice and equality.

“I think the main thing is just keep it relevant, don't let it die off in a couple days, a week, a month, because it’s something that’s been happening for a long time,” she said.

The needle may be moving. It just means it’s time to push harder and expect even more.