Blasting Post: Like it or not, black athletes have say on social justice issue

MICHAEL LEONARD
Reporter
Former NBA player Stephen Jackson attends a memorial service for George Floyd at North Central University June 4 in Minneapolis. A long-time friend of Floyd, Jackson is one of many athletes who have joined the protests.

Throughout the 20th and 21st century, many of the most recognizable black people in America have been athletes.

Many black athletes have chosen to use their celebrity status to call attention to the issues in their community.

Sometimes, this is as simple as talking about poverty or education issues with the media.

Other times, there have been silent protests that have been poignant.

Previous generations will remember when Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.

More recently, LeBron James and other NBA players have wore T-shirts emblazoned with “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner and more recently, George Floyd

I would expect to see more of those shirts once the NBA returns this summer.

The most famous protests — prior to the last few weeks — were started by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. His decision to take a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and black oppression sparked a movement that rippled through the NFL and into other sports.

Echoes of Kaepernick’s gesture are coming back, as protesters, athletes, politicians — and even some police officers — have taken a knee during the George Floyd protests.

Black athletes have long been cognizant of their place in American consciousness.

They’ve also been aware that some white people don’t want to hear it.

Keep in mind in the first half of the 20th century, blacks just participating in professional sports was abhorred by many white folks.

When Jack Johnson became world boxing heavyweight champion in 1908, he was loudly denounced. Johnson also had many relationships with white women, which was the height of taboo at the time.

These days, Jackie Robinson is rightly venerated for integrating Major League Baseball. However, he faced racism that was overt and loud during his time. Check out the movie “42” for some disturbing realism regarding Robinson’s treatment.

I wish more people recognized Cleveland Indians legend Larry Doby for doing the same in the American League.

What was Smith and Carlos’ reward for their protest? International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage had them suspended and thrown out of the Games.

More recently, James has been chastised for his political efforts, from speaking up about racism and police violence to supporting former President Barack Obama.

Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham told LeBron in 2018 to “Shut up and dribble.” James used that phrase as the title for a documentary describing the changing role of NBA players in speaking out on political and cultural issues.

Then, of course, there was Kaepernick’s fate. 

While the protests he started took root in the NFL and elsewhere, the backlash to his actions appeared to cost Kaepernick his job. While he struggled in 2016 after coming back from injuries, after he was released in March 2016 by the 49ers, Kaepernick was not offered anything as a free agent.

Kaepernick sued the NFL claiming he was being ostracized by the league. More than a few commentators have noted Kaepernick would be an improvement over numerous quarterbacks in the NFL, yet he hasn’t had a job in three years.

In a case of “better late than never,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell June 5 put out a statement acknowledging the NFL was wrong not to listen to its players about racism and allowing them to peacefully protest.

I believe this is a good step for the NFL and Goodell. A better step would be to have an NFL team sign Kaepernick. It’s not as if some NFL teams don’t need veteran quarterbacks.

Kaepernick is 32 now, having lost four of his prime athletic years due to the NFL. Maybe he’s not the quarterback he was before his time away, but if he does get a second act, he can take inspirations from another black athlete who faced a similar backlash.

You may have heard of Muhammed Ali. 

These days, Ali is a celebrated figure and recognized as one of boxing’s greatest champions. However, during his time he was also an outspoken critic of racism and the Vietnam War via his association with the Nation of Islam.

When he refused to be inducted into the United States armed forces on religious grounds, Ali was stripped of his title and boxing license, keeping him sidelined for more than three years in the prime of his career.

Ali’s comeback was glorious, as he won the heavyweight title two more times. 

Can Kaepernick have such a comeback? The NFL might claim Kaepernick is not owed anything, but given all that has happened in recent times, getting a shot at redemption would be a heck of a story.

During the George Floyd protests, athletes of all skin colors have come forward to join the protest. Games in the German Bundesliga have seen whole teams kneel before games. Even NASCAR has stopped its races to acknowledge the pain of racism — and just banned the use of Confederate flags at its events.

But no one has done so more personally than former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who was a friend of Floyd’s going back to playing together in high school. He called him his “Twin.” 

While his relationship with Floyd was personal, Jackson was doing nothing more than what many black athletes have when he asked “When was murder ever worthy?”

In the struggle for racial justice, black athletes have long taken a public role, knowing full well reprisals are likely.

Here’s hoping they continue to stand up.

Reporter Michael Leonard can be reached at 330-541-9442, mleonard@recordpub.com or @MLeonard_GAN on Twitter.