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Tina Casey headshot

Professional Sports Leagues Finally Step Up for Black Lives Matter

Only a few years ago, professional sports leagues ignored the Black Lives Matter movement, and even blacklisted one NFL player. How times have changed.
By Tina Casey
Black Lives Matter

As the Black Lives Matter movement begins to fade out of the mainstream media’s headlines, professional sports leagues and individual players are taking actions to ensure the issue of police violence against Blacks in America remains in the public eye throughout the summer. If the effort extends into the fall, it could have an impact on the 2020 election cycle.

Four years ago, near-silence on Black Lives Matter for professional sports

To understand the full meaning of today’s Black Lives Matter protests in major league sports, it is helpful to look back at the origins of the movement.

Much of the general public has encountered the Black Lives Matter movement for the first time this year, as waves of protest marches swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of uniformed police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

However, the movement traces its origins back six years ago, to 2013. It was sparked by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida who shot and killed a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin. Martin was unarmed and was returning home after purchasing snacks at a local store.

The case made national headlines but received little formal acknowledgement from professional sports leagues at the time.

To keep the issue alive, three self-described radical organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — created a decentralized activism project called #BlackLivesMatter. Over the years, the project coalesced into the organization Black Lives Matter, which coordinates with 14 chapters in the U.S. and supports the broader Black Lives Matter movement.

“Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folk's humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression,” the movement's leaders explain on its website.

NFL star Colin Kaepernick took those words to heart when he decided to kneel during the National Anthem four years ago in September of 2016. At previous games he had gained attention for sitting in protest of state-sanctioned oppression. He turned to kneeling in order to support the Black Lives Matter movement with a positive message that emphasizes progress and respect rather than divisiveness.

Kaepernick’s decision to kneel came about after conversations with a former Green Beret named Nate Boyer, who was initially angered by Kaepernick’s sit-downs. After meeting with Kaepernick, Boyer voiced support for efforts to raise awareness about persistent structural racism in the U.S. That includes various forms of policing by white individuals, whether they are professional law enforcement officers or not.

Professional sports are now getting the Black Lives Matter message

Clearly the NFL did not get the message back in 2016. For his efforts, Kaepernick was effectively blacklisted by all of professional football. Despite his widely acknowledged status as a star player, no team signed him in 2017, and he has sat out every season since then.

Other athletes and professional sports leagues, though, have picked up the ball.

Last week, Mother Jones took note of support for the Black Lives Matter movement by players and teams in the National Basketball Association.

“Since landing in Orlando as part of the NBAs return to play, Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris has spoken to the media about precisely one thing: ‘Justice for Breonna Taylor,’ observed CNN reporter Dan Spinelli.

In contrast to the NFL’s treatment of Kaepernick, Harris has the support of his team and the NBA for his efforts to bring public attention to the death of Taylor, who was unarmed and shot in her bed at night during a no-knock police raid.

“The NBA plastered ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the game court in Walt Disney World in Orlando, where the professional basketball league is finishing its coronavirus-shortened season,” Spinelli wrote. “The NBA also approved 29 statements, such as ‘Say Their Names’ and ‘I Cant Breathe,’ for players to wear on their jerseys in Orlando once official games begin next week.”

Major League Baseball teams also leveraged Opening Day publicity to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. A new wave of activism included the participation of the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, in addition to the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Every player and coach on all four teams assembled and kneeled along their respective foul lines with long black ribbons prior to their games.

Writing for CNN, Paul P. Murphy reported additional actions for visual impact.

‘“BLM,’ accompanied by the MLB's logo, has been stamped onto the pitcher's mound of the World Series-defending Washington Nationals --and the Los Angeles Dodgers -- on Thursday night. That's the most prominently displayed ballpark location during a television broadcast,” he wrote.

Murphy also noted that BLM and “United for Change” patches were worn by the aforementioned baseball teams.

The Nationals and Yankees players wore BLM shirts for pre-game practice, as did players on the Dodgers. In addition, Murphy reported, Major League Baseball will lift a rule that prevented players from placing messages on their cleats. The new policy allows for social justice messages during the 2020 season.

Nike picks up where the NFL left off

Against this backdrop, the NFL appears to be tone deaf. The league has been among the many sports organizations and businesses to pledge financial support for social justice causes in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, but it has refrained from making the kind of televised, visual statements that create a lasting impact on millions of fans.

Nike, on the other hand, has let no such opportunity pass by. The company had an opportunity to drop its contract with Kaepernick when it expired after the 2016 NFL season. Instead, Nike provided him with the pivotal role in the reboot of its famous “Just Do It” campaign, which launched in September 2018.

The Just Do It reboot highlighted Kaepernick’s social justice activism, which is an interesting juxtaposition considering that Nike was under contract to supply every NFL team with uniforms and other gear.

Nike is still under contract with the NFL, and now it is back with another campaign that puts the league on the spot.

Last week, Nike released a video launching its new "You Can't Stop Us" message, which deploys dramatic split-screen footage to underscore how athletes across the full range of human diversity share a common desire. As reported by CNN among others, the video was viewed more than 20 million times on Twitter within days, and 11 million times on YouTube.

“Many commenters applauded its themes of diversity, social justice and collectivism,” wrote Chancey Alcorn for CNN Business.

Coming in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, the message of collectivism and commonality is in stark contrast to the divisive rhetoric of the Trump administration. It also reflects a new wave of participation in Black Lives Matter protests by whites and other non-Black activists.

In that light, the new campaign is another pie in the face of NFL leadership. Nike released the Just Do It reboot just six months after inking a 10-year extension on its NFL contract, drawing renewed attention to the refusal of the league to allow Kaepernick to play.

With the You Can't Stop Us campaign, Nike brings a broader message that underscores how the NFL has fallen far behind the times. The video practically dares the league to come up with a more impactful way of reaching its fans with meaningful social justice messages and empowering its players to speak out.

The NFL just might be on its way to doing that. Last week, BET Sports listed 17 ways that major league sports are demonstrating their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Among several measures, NFL plans to replace The Star Spangled Banner with Lift Every Voice and Sing, often referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” during the first week of its 2020 season.

The season kicks off on September 10. As noted by BET reporter Alexis Reese, it will be interesting to see if players kneel during the pregame events, and if they do, how the NFL will react.

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Image credit: Daniel Vargas/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey