Black athletes and the fight against two pandemics

(News4usonline) – A knee for a knee. One knee was a call for justice. The other represented oppression.  One knee called attention to police brutality and forces of violence against Black people. Another knee exercised a privileged license to kill. 

The symbolism of former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem and the knee that ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used to murder George Floyd is as different as in the likeness of peace and war. 

Kaepernick wanted civility with interactions between police and people of color. Chauvin re-ignited a culture war between Black Americans and law enforcement.    

When Kaepernick was getting on one knee in quiet protest prior to the playing of NFL games five years ago, the playmaking quarterback who once took his team to the Super Bowl was doing it to bring awareness and attention to acts of violence against Black Americans by law enforcement. 

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and safety Eric Reid (35) kneel on the sideline during the playing of the National Anthem before an NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday, October 6, 2016. The Cardinals defeated the 49ers 33-21 (Kevin Terrell via AP)

“We have cops that are murdering people,” Kaepernick said about the issue after a 2016 preseason game. “We have cops in the SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) that are blatantly racist. And those issues need to be addressed. 

“I have an uncle, I have friends who are cops,” Kaepernick continued. “I have great respect for them because they’re doing it for the right reason and they genuinely want to protect and help people. That’s not the case with all cops. And the cops that are murdering people, and are racist, are putting other cops in danger, like my family, like my friends. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”

The 2016 NFL season turned out to be Kaepernick’s last. That’s because the league turned its back on Kaepernick. Because of his social justice messaging about police brutality, Kaepernick has not been able to sniff an NFL football locker room. 

In a disingenuous effort to abstain from Kaepernick’s controversial stance but at the same time keep the peace with its players, the league came out with an announcement in January that it had poured in $95 million to 13 nonprofits to help push their own brand of social justice messaging.

“As a league, we are proud to provide financial support for such impactful programs that inspire change, but we know our work as a league and at the team level in the cities where we play is not done and we must continue to support the march against social injustice,” said Atlanta Falcons Owner and Chairman and member of the Player-Owner Social Justice Working Group, Arthur Blank. 

“This past year opened the eyes of so many to the inequality suffered by many of our fellow brothers and sisters, neighbors and associates,” Blank continued. “We will continue to stand with our players as we address underlying issues and bring people together to achieve meaningful, positive change.” 

A protester holds up an artistic likeness of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles, California, on June 3, 2020. The protest was part of nationwide and global unrest in wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others who have died in police custody. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

In all, the NFL has made a 10-year, $250 million commitment to the cause of social justice. Of course, this intervention by the league comes a day late and a dollar short. What Kaepernick started, at the cost of his livelihood, the NFL is trying to finish.

However, no matter what the NFL does in lending its voice to the social justice campaign, it lacks the same punch that Kaepernick landed with his quiet way of demonstrating against the many injustices done to Black Americans. What Kaepernick did was bold. It was daring. It was unapologetic. It wasn’t compromised.  

Intersection of Justice

Unfortunately, and ironically, Chauvin made a mockery of Kaepernick’s gesture of a social justice protest by sticking his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds on May 25, 2020. Chauvin’s vile act was that of a cold, callous mercenary carrying out an execution mission. 

By killing the 46-year-old Black man in the manner that he did, Chauvin didn’t just soak his hands in murder, he wanted to kill and send a message. It was a message meant to create fear and to intimidate. A Black life like that of Floyd didn’t mean squat to Chauvin. 

It mattered to everybody else. It mattered to Darnella Frazier, the then-teenager who videotaped Floyd’s deadly encounter with Chauvin. It mattered to Donald Williams II, the mixed martial arts fighter who witnessed the killing of Floyd. It mattered to the people who protested for months in the name of social justice.

It wasn’t just the murder of Floyd that got people riled up. It was the way Floyd died. It was the shrouded mysterious circumstances in the way Breonna Taylor was killed. It was how Manuel Ellis lost his life. 

Daniel Prude was hooded and restrained while in police custody after suffering a mental episode. Andre Hill had a cellphone in his hand when he was shot and killed. Daunte Wright’s life ended over a minor traffic violation stop.       

A demonstrator puts the message through during a George Floyd protest in Los Angeles. Photo credit: Melinda Meijer/News4usonline

Before Floyd’s death became a flashpoint of police violence, pent-up frustration in the Black community had reached a boiling point from the other killings. Ellis was killed by Tacoma, Washington police on March 3, 2020. 

Several members of the Louisville Metro Police Department shot and killed Taylor on March 13. Prude’s demise came at the hands of Rochester, New York police on March 23. Floyd and Brooks (June 12, 2020) would follow in the list of police deadly encounters. 

Hill (Dec. 12, 2020) and Wright (April 11, 2021) are the other highly publicized cases where police interactions ended with fatal consequences.    

A Double Pandemic

As the nation has grappled with how to defeat Covid-19, Black America has had to beat back two pandemics: an invisible virus and those sworn to protect and serve. The outrage against police violence has been felt and heard with rallying cries coming from just about every part of society. 

As Covid-19 put a stranglehold on everyday American life, Black people went into dissent mode as the avalanche of police killings started stacking up. Some of the more visible outtakes for social justice in light of all of these police killings have come in the form of the Black athlete.

This is not new. Historically, the Black athlete has always had a highly visible platform to speak up about the inequities dealt the Black community that ordinary citizens are rarely afforded.  

Yesterday’s heroes such as Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jesse Owens, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, and Muhammad Ali put their sports careers as well as their lives on the line when it came down to addressing social injustices unleashed on Black Americans. 

Dr. John Carlos is familiar with having to address these atrocities. He has also had the uncomfortable level of having to live through a pandemic before.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Dr. John Carlos (left) with Dr. Tommie Smith in front of their statue likeness that replicates their 1968 human rights protests. The bronze statue is located at San Jose State University where the track and field legends competed and attended school. Photo credit: San Jose State University

Just prior to the electric protest stance that Carlos and Tommie Smith exhibited on the victory stand after the men’s 200-meter race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a virus, known as the Hong Kong flu had begun to spread worldwide. 

The Hong Kong flu (H3N2) would end up taking the lives of estimated 100,000 Americans and 1 million people globally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

At the time, there was a more in-your-face pandemic that Carlos and Black Americans had to contend with, and that being in the form of blatant forms of bigotry and racism. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated early in 1968 (April), sparking rioting in hundreds of U.S. cities. The killing of King and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy in (June 5) the same year sent America further into the black hole of trying to advance civil rights. 

With the Vietnam War serving as a backdrop of chaos and confusion in this time period, Black athletes such as Carlos and Smith sought to bring attention to issues such as unlawful housing practices, police brutality, voting rights, oppression, and violence. 

Everything came to a head for Carlos when he and Smith gave perhaps the most provocative human rights demonstration in sports history when they cast their clinched, black-gloved fists in the air in an ultimate act of defiance. 

It was a move by the San Jose State University stars to defy all the hate being directed towards people because they had a different skin color. It was a gesture of silence to alert the international community on the oppressive conditions Blacks were subjected to in the United States. 

It is in that same social justice breath that Carlos saw playing out after Floyd was killed. 

“I said this 50 years ago, we weren’t there for a Black Power demonstration. Our Black Power movement was on the track,” Carlos said in an August 2020 interview with Dennis J. Freeman. “That was the power of blackness then. We were there for a human rights statement. To see today, to see so many individuals concerned about humanity…it’s not merely Black individuals wanting to raise their fists and take a knee. It’s society as a whole saying we all are raising our fists and taking a knee.”

Protesting with Purpose

The massive protests around the world after the killing of Floyd were the unification of people rallying behind a single cause. That cause is the eradication of police violence against people of color. 

PALMETTO, FL – JULY 25: Team members of the Seattle Storm honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor by wearing Taylor’s name on their jerseys on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. 2020 NBAE Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

“What you see here in the United States and if you view it around the world everyone is with their fists to the sky or taking a knee or marching or raising their voice,” Carlos said. “So what it is, humanity has come alive 53 years for it to blossom. But it’s here today and it’s universal. So that’s very refreshing, very rewarding and I’m just so happy for my little part that I was able to play in.”     

Black athletes cover the whole wide spectrum of sports, so there were individuals everywhere popping up to address the racial climate of the nation. Led by the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA had a mini-work stoppage and nearly called off the 2020 season after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer. 

The women of the WNBA, a pillar in the social justice movement, were all in with the messaging of not tolerating racism, even going to the length of putting the name of Taylor on the back of their jerseys. 

Competing in the U.S. Open last year, tennis star Naomi Osaka wore the names of Black victims killed by law enforcement or by some sort of vigilante-style justice before every one of her matches. 

On the way to winning the U.S. Open title, Osaka plastered the names of Floyd, Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, and Philando Castile on face mask coverings she wore, each for every round she played in, including the finals. 

The NFL, Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball, and other sports leagues made some kind of statement denouncing systemic racism. So why all the outrage now by the sports world? The anger or the level of activism coming out from the fallout of the Floyd murder and others is not an arbitrary moment. 

It’s been a slow burn process, Carlos said.  

“If I was to take 400 years of dirt and keep piling this dirt on you, it’s going to take some time…although you would feel the weight of it, you feel like you’re suffocating, can’t see, but you know that’s what’s happening is wrong, it’s going to take some time for you to remove this dirt from your body,” Carlos said. “That’s what has happened in those 53 years. They had to peel the onions skins back to get the courage.” 

Getting that courage has not always been easy for Black people, Carlos added. 

“We have a built-in factor that they built into us way back when, and that’s the fear factor,” quipped Carlos. “Many individuals, in terms of removing that dirt, they had to peel that fear factor back. They had to find their courage within themselves. They had to be able to use their minds probably for the first time to determine what is right or wrong. They had to take into account that this war is not for me. It’s for my offspring. It’s for my kids and for my kids’ kids.”

Gwendolyn Berry, left, looks away as DeAnna Price and Brooke Andersen stand for the national anthem after the finals of the women’s hammer throw at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Eugene, Ore. Price won, Andersen was second and Berry finished third. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Black athletes today have a clear understanding that they nor their loved ones are exempt from being judged and executed because of what their skin color looks like, Carlos explained.  

“I think that many individuals are starting to realize that just based on the tragedies that have been going on throughout the nation that I can be a superstar athlete and everyone acknowledges me on the field of play but I can get killed going from the locker room to my car based on the color of my skin,” Carlos stated. “I can be a superstar athlete but my wife, my daughter, my son, my mother, nor my father, they don’t have Shaquille O’Neal tattooed across their forehead. But what they do have tattooed across their forehead is skin color. And just for that in America, you can lose your life merely for having that skin color.”  

Two-time Olympian Gwen Berry takes this reality with her each and every time she goes out and competes. Speaking out and advocating for racial justice has been Berry’s calling card for years. Because of that, the hammer throw specialist seems to create a stir wherever she goes.

At the 2019 Pan American Games, Berry did her best Carlos and Smith impersonation by raising her fist on the victory stand. Berry was admonished by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for her actions and put on probation.

Berry has carried on with her resistance ways. This was on display at the 2020 U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials. After placing third in the hammer throw at the trials, Berry looked like she wanted nothing to do with the playing of the national anthem.

The activist athlete went through all kinds of maneuvers on the podium to sidestep celebrating what the flag or the national anthem stands for. 

“The anthem don’t speak for me, it never has,” Berry would later say. 

What speaks to Berry is the continued oppression of Black people. Before going over to Tokyo, Japan to participate in her second Olympics, Berry talked about being a voice on the issue of racial injustice.       

“I feel like it’s really important for me and my community, just to be able to represent,” remarked Berry. “I think sports is entertainment and a distraction. But my purpose and my voice and my mission is bigger than the sport. So, me being able to represent my communities and my people, and those that have died at the hands of police brutality, those that have died to this systemic racism.”     

Featured Image Caption: In this Sept. 8 2020 file photo, Naomi Osaka, of Japan, wears a protective mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, featuring the name “George Floyd”, while arriving on court to face Shelby Rogers, of the United States, during the quarterfinal round of the US Open tennis championships, in New York. Osaka and Simone Biles are prominent young Black women under the pressure of a global Olympic spotlight that few human beings ever face. But being a young Black woman — which, in American life, comes with its own built-in pressure to perform — entails much more than meets the eye. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II