Illustration by Nic Nerli

Protests against racial injustice erupt across pro sports

As Portlanders and Lewis & Clark students, it is fair to say that we are all trying to figure out where we fit into the racial and social justice movement that is sweeping the nation. Many of us feel that the best way to contribute to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is to recognize and check our privilege, while simultaneously using our various platforms to amplify and stand with the voices of movement leaders. 

In that vein, the number of professional athletes that use their platforms to publicly protest against systemic racism has grown considerably. Most recently, on Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to move forward with their playoff game against Orlando Magic as a protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Blake was shot in the back seven times by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and has since become an important voice in the BLM movement from his hospital bed in Milwaukee. 

This is one of the scarce occasions when an entire professional sports team has decided to strike, and it shocked many spectators. While this walkout was nearly unprecedented, activism in the U.S. athletic world has been growing for years. This high-profile strike was an incredible act of solidarity. It was likely made possible by the social justice wave that has been flowing through the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) for years. In July 2016, four Minnesota Lynx players wore warm-up shirts that heightened national media attention to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It comes as little surprise that on Aug. 26, the WNBA postponed all games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake.

One day after the Milwaukee Bucks strike, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins followed suit. Each member of the two teams took off his cap and observed 42 seconds of silence for Jackie Robinson, who donned that number on his jersey. Instead of playing, they left a single BLM T-shirt on Citi Field and walked off. This game was among seven other Major League Baseball (MLB) games that were scheduled but not played that day. 

These high profile athletic strikes, among others, were revolutionary and unheard of, and subjected many athletes to racially-charged attacks from the far right. Laura Ingraham, the controversial Fox News host, suggested that Kevin Durant and LeBron James “keep the political commentary to themselves and … shut up and dribble.” Symbolic actions such as those listed above bring further media attention to racially motivated shootings. However, it is just as important to create sustainable and incremental change by committing to work on issues of police brutality, racial disparities, systematic racism and neo-nationalism. 

A superb example of sustained athletic social justice is right here in our city. The Portland Trail Blazers have long been dedicated to giving back to their community through the Trail Blazers Foundation. Since 2009, they have given over $7 million to community efforts in Oregon and southwest Washington. Additionally, the foundation sponsors the Blazers Boys & Girls Club, the first in the nation to be sponsored by a professional sports team. In response to the BLM movement, they have outlined their commitments to the movement in a statement on nba.com and created the Racial Injustice Fund of the Trail Blazers Foundation. 

The Blazer’s list of commitments promises both specific actions, broad solutions and lends solidarity to those who have suffered at the hands of police. The beginning of their statement specifically addresses the responsibility with which they intend to use their privilege. 

“We take very seriously our responsibility to leverage our position, platform, resources and influence to create the safe, secure quality of life we all deserve,” the statement says. “We are committed to do all that we can to move us toward a more just and equitable society. Our commitment begins here.”  

The Trail Blazers are paving the way for future, and more transformative, athletic activism. Sustained media attention, strikes and T-shirts are extremely important aspects of athletic activism, but using a powerful platform as leverage to raise awareness and money for the cause creates more concrete and substantial change.

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