The year 2020 has been a roller coaster to say the least, and it does not seem to be slowing down. While the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis are bad enough, recent events have reminded us that we can’t forget the racial injustice that has lingered for centuries. The current state of the United States is no longer a question of political divide, but a need for justice.
As I think about this, I am reminded that sports are inherently designed for entertainment to be enjoyed by all, but injustice has seeped into this arena as well.
James “Shack” Harris in 1969 became the first black quarterback in professional football to be a regular starter when he played for the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. Harris also became the first to start and win a playoff game in 1971. In 2018, Harris shared his story during “Dear Black Athlete,” a series of conversations about race and sports hosted by The Undefeated. He recalled his coach at Grambling State University, Eddie Robinson, recognizing the challenges ahead of him and saying, “Do not come back and say you did not make it because you are black.”
During that conversation, Vanderbilt University’s David Williams II, athletic director of the university, simply said people have to be careful “not to confuse change with progress.” While over the past few generations sports rosters, coaching slots, and typical front-office jobs have increasingly become filled by African-Americans and other people of color, that progress has not yielded full change.
The NFL recently announced small changes to the “Rooney Rule,” along with a proposal incentivizing teams to interview minority candidates for executive positions, such as head coach, coordinator, and general manager. In return, teams that hire minorities will receive higher draft picks. This proposal has not yet been implemented. Although this step aims for more diversity and equality, it should not take an incentive to drive change. Of the proposal, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said it best on the Pro Football Talk podcast: “I just have never been in favor of rewarding people for doing the right thing.”
Most prominently three years ago, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a bold stand; he took a knee during the pregame national anthem to protest mistreatment of minorities by police officers. Kaepernick believed in something so strongly he was willing to take a stand and deal with the consequences, and in fact, he has not seen the field in the NFL since. The national anthem protests caused a divide among players, but the movement he ignited became bigger than him.
The racial challenges faced by athletes are just one small part of the injustice prevalent in American society today. The knee Kaepernick took was not enough to prevent the disgraceful and inexplicable knee of police officer Derek Chauvin on George Floyd’s neck this past week. As I check Twitter and search the recent news, sports figures are using their platforms to encourage social change. Prominent African-American athletes like LeBron James have taken to social media to press for change. Over the years, James has repeatedly said that he wants to make an impact beyond sports. For him, “it’s bigger than basketball.”
In the wake of the death of George Floyd and too many other minorities, we can’t let other challenges facing the nation overshadow racial injustice and inequality. It is about time for progressive legal action to be taken.
Belson, Ken. “N.F.L. Team Owners Enhance Rooney Rule, but Stop Short of Incentives.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 May 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/19/sports/football/nfl-rooney-rule-minority-coaches.html.
DeShazo, Steve. “Steve DeShazo: Sports, Race and Politics Can't Be Separated.” Fredericksburg.com, 1 June 2020, www.fredericksburg.com/sports/steve-deshazo-sports-race-and-politics-cant-be-separated/article_66a8013f-579c-554a-a02e-d7244a68c971.html.
Florio, Mike. “Tony Dungy Fears ‘Unintended Consequences’ of Proposed Rooney Rule Expansion.” ProFootballTalk, 18 May 2020, profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2020/05/18/tony-dungy-fears-unintended-consequences-of-proposed-rooney-rule-expansion/.
Fletcher, Michael A. “'Dear Black Athlete' Examines Issues of Race and Sports in This Moment of Protest.” The Undefeated, The Undefeated, 11 Apr. 2018, theundefeated.com/features/dear-black-athlete-issues-of-race-sports-birmingham/.