Heading into the return of sports, social justice was expected to be and currently still is at the forefront.
Professional leagues, including the NBA, WNBA, MLB and others have engaged in protests since the return of sports in a national movement for racial justice amidst the pandemic.
College athletes have also been a large part of this. Since the death of George Floyd in May, athletes at Mississippi State, Texas and other colleges around the country have created tangible change regarding racial issues.
Even more recently, athletes from the Pac-12 and Big Ten came together this month to release demands to their respective conferences, using the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #BigTenUnited, respectively. The letter from Big Ten athletes focused solely on safety concerns, and demanded that the conference put in better measures to protect athletes.
The letter from Pac-12 athletes, which was released just a few days earlier, went further than that. They demanded the NCAA do better regarding racial justice, and fix its system, which disproportionately exploits Black college athletes “physically, economically and academically.” Their demands included economic equity for college athletes and creating a Pac-12 Black College Athlete Summit.
The Pac-12 and Big Ten are now the only Power Five conferences to have canceled fall sports due to the spread of the coronavirus. Protest was expected to have a big place in college athletics this fall, so how do protests by athletes function without that platform?
Protest has been present in sports since their inception, but in the current environment, the balance is a complicated relationship. The biggest advantage when an athlete protests on the field or court is that it forces people to see it and listen. Colin Kaepernick’s on-field demonstration received the national attention it did, not solely due to the issue he was protesting, but the method in which he protested. Had Kaepernick simply spoken to the media or protested in his local community, it wouldn’t still be talked about today.
As seen in 2016 and the four years since, not everyone will take that disruption of the normal routine in sports as valid. However, that level of dissent is necessary for effective protest. When an athlete attempts to make these stands while also trying to fit snugly within the status quo, the protest loses its power.
With all that being said, sports can be a distraction from these issues, whether or not there is a game being played. There was a good amount of truth to the messages sent by Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard prior to the NBA’s restart — sports are a distraction, especially when people have been without them for months.
While the NBA and WNBA have done a good job of incorporating social justice into the restart, many people could very well still try and escape those things and simply focus on the game. This diminishes the message of the protest and works against progress.
We see this happening in Nebraska too, where college sports won’t even be played. On August 6, over 25 Husker athletes tweeted out the hashtag #LegacyOverImage, along with a statement and a list of requests urging the university to be more racially inclusive.
Among the requests were having multiple people of color in head coaching roles, psychologist roles and positions with hiring power in the athletic department. On top of that, they requested a memorial to George Flippin, the university’s first Black football player, a public statement from the university saying “Black Lives Matter” and for 0.5% of annual athletic department proceeds to be donated to black-owned businesses and charities in Lincoln. The university has not responded publicly to any of these requests.
After that day and the initial articles, the coverage and overall discourse about the statement essentially disappeared. One factor in this happening that should be acknowledged was the fact that the Big Ten was rapidly moving towards cancellation. From Aug. 5-11, the rumors and different reports swirled around for six days, sweeping coverage of #LegacyOverImage under the rug for the most part.
There was never much national coverage of the movement, but the lack of local acknowledgement was jarring. Since then, there’s been consistent and deeper coverage done on the effects of the season’s cancellation, players still wanting to play and even plenty of work done on a group of Nebraska parents challenging Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren to bring back the season. That isn’t to completely dismiss the newsworthiness of those events — conflict drives news in most cases — but it’s not impossible to devote coverage to athlete activism as well.
However, a larger reason for the lack of coverage may be that much of this is uncomfortable to confront for many in Nebraska, a state which is nearly 90% white. It isn’t comforting that Nebraska has never had a Black head coach. It’s comfortable for the university to hold up George Flippin as a symbol of the university’s work on integration prior to 1900, but it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discrimination he faced on the team, and that the university completely banned Black people from athletics from 1917 up until the late 1940s. Nebraska didn’t have another Black football player until 1952.
How college athletes will use their voices this fall remains to be seen. Even without competition, said voices hold power to inspire change that will last beyond four years at a university. There’s a lot of issues going on in the United States currently, but choosing to ignore conversations about injustice is an injustice in itself.
Just because the platform of the football field or basketball court is gone doesn’t give us an excuse to stop listening to athletes — or anyone speaking up about injustice. Large portions of the state and country have rallied behind athletes still wanting to play football this fall, but let’s keep that same energy when it comes to social justice and equality.