Black Lives Matter: Collecting the Wisdom of Black Athletes on Racism and Racial Justice
Black Lives Matter: Collecting the Wisdom of Black Athletes on Racism and Racial Justice
In Hell, No. We Won’t ‘Just Stick to Sports.’ If We Are Demanding Change Together, We Can’t, last week’s Good Men Project ‘Heart of Sports’ column, we focused on anti-racism allies who were finally using their platform to speak out on #BlackLivesMatter and the murder of George Floyd and to demand change. That outpouring is continuing this week.
Black athletes — like Colin Kaepernick, like Tim Anderson, like LeBron James, like Muhammad Ali — have been using their platform to speak about injustice for decades.
Many times they have been met with the “stick to sports” mantra. We still see this hurled around online today. This response is, of course, designed to shut down their speech, because it was making people uncomfortable, which…is the entire point.
We should be uncomfortable in the face of injustice. We’d better be.
It’s time to speak out, to listen, and to push for hard change. Today, we want to gather up and share some of the wisdom being shared by black athletes across the world of sports.
Check out the words and stories of Lisa Leslie, Royce White, Caron Butler, Andrew Hawkins, Tobias Harris, Delino Deshields, Jr., Kyle Kuzma and Jules Heningburg. These aren’t just on-field entertainers; they are people with wisdom and incredibly relevant experiences. Pull the string and engage. There is so much to learn and so much to do.
In a Player’s Tribute essay entitled ‘Dear America,’ All-World WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie shared her own story and words of advice:
Over the past week, I’ve had a lot of my white friends — who I love — say things like, “You know what? That’s why I don’t even watch the news. I just turn it off.” Well, that’s a privilege to be able to turn it off. Just because you choose to be in the dark about what’s going on doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
I’ve also had white friends say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” I appreciate what’s in your heart, but it’s not just happening to me. As long as you think it’s only happening to me, that’s the problem. It’s happening to all of us. It’s injustice, and your silence is confirmation.
We 100% appreciate the people who don’t look like us who join us peacefully, seriously and compassionately in our fight. We need you, we welcome you, we thank you. We need people who want to be a part of the solution.
Our solutions have to start not just with our voices, not just with social media and hashtags, but also with our actions. Explain to your children the injustice and teach them to stand up for what is right and just, regardless of race. Be careful how you stereotype others, because you are either passing on love, or passing on hate to the next generation.
Former NBA first-round draft pick and mental health leader and advocate Royce White has been speaking out on issues of police brutality and racism for a long time.
In 2014 — six years ago — he wrote an extraordinary and powerful essay entitled ‘I Can’t Breathe, Either,’ which explored his own anxiety disorder and the links between police killings, institutional racism, and our nation’s failure to address and treat mental illness. Sadly, what he described in 2014 feels very much like 2020:
Maybe it would be too convenient to label the nationwide protests over police killings, racism, and social injustice as panic attacks. Still, it is clear our country is suffering from a collective claustrophobia that has intensified within the past year and brought us to a flashpoint. Citizens and police alike feel closed in; responses — whether the reckless and/or gratuitous use of force and weaponry, or the seemingly random and counterintuitive destruction of property and businesses — are marked by panic, irrationality, and fear . . . As someone who also deals with anxiety disorder every day, I know all about panic attacks and the inability to breathe.
But he is still leading the way and demanding change, six years later. White led the peaceful protest in Minneapolis, explaining that “[m]arching and publicly demonstrating our freedom, collectively as a unit, allows us to fight the tyranny of the state and reestablish our sovereignty.”
Six years ago, months after the murders of Tamir Rice and John Crawford in Ohio, NFL WR Andrew Hawkins of the Cleveland Browns spoke out powerfully in protest against police killings and racism. This week he is reminding everyone of the response to those protests:
We first spoke with Caron Butler six years ago and published an interview entitled ‘Under the Tough Exterior of ‘Tough Juice’: The Evolution of the NBA’s Caron Butler’. The former U Conn and Miami Heat and Washington Wizards star who evolved into a tremendous community leader told us that he was arrested fifteen times before the age of fifteen.
He referenced that — and the fact that he had never had a positive interaction with the police in his entire life — last week in his Player’s Tribune piece on race and justice entitled ‘This is a WE Thing’, in which he implored everyone to step up, speaker out, and act:
It’s time to STEP UP. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and say that this shit is not O.K.
And I’m tired of people calling and texting saying, “I don’t know what to say right now.”
Man, just say something.
I don’t give a fuck if you gotta issue a statement, send a tweet, record a video, quote someone smarter than you, make a T-shirt, whatever — but you have to say something. You can’t just sit by and be quiet right now and play the PC shit. No more PC shit. No more politics.
Just what’s real.
Anyone without something real to say by now, as far as I’m concerned, that means they’re part of the problem…
The world we live in is finally talking about racial injustice.
The conversation is finally at the table.
Now, you have to take your seat at that table and focus on the next step: solutions. You have to plan, and be strategic — and most of all, keep on pushing. You have to keep on pushing for the future that you want.
It’s a fight for ALL of us.
I’m all in.
I been in.
We first spoke with the Philadelphia 76ers Tobias Harris back in 2015 when he was a twenty-two year old playing with the Orlando Magic. He has since blossomed into an NBA star. He spoke about opportunity and about not taking anything for granted.
Last week he stepped into his opportunity to speak about racism, police brutality and the need to come together for humanity’s sake, to all use our platforms to the fullest to talk about what is happening and address it in his Player’s Tribune piece entitled ‘Y’all Hear Us, But You Ain’t Listening.‘ He specifically focused on education:
“And if I had to do this all over again, I would change in a lot of ways — mainly in terms of educating myself on black history, and everything that went on in the early movements that gave us the rights we have now…
The schools don’t tell you the whole story. This is why I’m so big on educating and mentoring the youth. When I was coming up, in our school we basically only learned about three African-American heroes. We learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. And when did we learn about them? During Black History Month. For 28 days. I know y’all can relate.
I knew about Christopher Columbus, about George Washington, all the presidents, but only a handful of black leaders. That’s what I was taught.
It wasn’t until my first year in the league when I had all this free time to educate myself, that I began learning about black pioneers in the world, learning about what really goes on in America. And I needed that period of learning to get to where I’m at now, where I’m educated enough to speak out.”
This week current Cleveland Indians outfielder Delino Deshields, Jr. opened up about not joining in protests and not taking a knee back in 2017 when he was a member of the Texas Rangers. He spoke about being called the N word by fans at Yankee Stadium, about why he didn’t speak out then, why he changed his mind, and how hard — but necessary — it is to have these tough conversations:
“I didn’t want to be castrated out the league for something that I believe in while trying to inspire the youth,” DeShields, 27, said. “I just didn’t want to contribute to that, especially when I’m trying to inspire young African American kids that you can play in the big leagues and look like me if that’s something you want to do…
It takes a really strong person to say pretty much, ‘F — what y’all think. This is how I feel as a minority in this sport,’ and be confident in that,” DeShields said. “I wish I was strong enough at the time to stand with him and show support. I wasn’t there yet…I was always taught to not make the white man mad,” DeShields said. “That was how I was raised with whatever I was doing, just respect white people cause white people have the power in America…
It’s easier in the NFL or the NBA to stand up for these things because growing up, even if you’re white, when you’re around football and basketball, you’re constantly around African Americans,” DeShields said. “You grow to empathize with them and love them for who they are. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in baseball, but there’s a lot of baseball players who haven’t played with black players until they got to a professional level. From that standpoint, it makes it harder to have those conversations.”
Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers also took to the Player’s Tribune to pen a piece this week, entitled “Ain’t No Sticking To Sports.” The bi-racial son of Flint, Michigan talked about how his identity growing up — as a black man or white man — “was in the eye of the beholder,” the invisible effect of white privilege, how race is used as a tool of oppression, institutionally, and announced a campaign focused on voting:
That’s why, to this day, man, my stance is: We’re people.
At the end of the day, we all gotta come together as people.
But I know that will never happen until white people actually understand what African-Americans have gone through in the past, still go through in the present and will probably continue to go through in the future.
Everybody is marching together across the country because we actually want to see shit CHANGE.
But first you have to understand the problem before you can change it.
Every person in the world has something in their soul, something in their mind, that they just do not want to talk about or address within themselves, whether that is body insecurities, past traumas, or whatnot.
America’s thing that we just do not want to talk about, as a country, is race…
[E]very time in the past when a black person was killed, we’ve talked about how it’s not right and that black lives matter, and then everyone has just gone back to their regularly scheduled lives.
Shit has to be different this time.
For that to happen, we have to do two things at once — KEEP UP the noise. Keep protesting, marching. Keep demanding CHANGE in the STREETS.
But also demand that change on election day.
Another athlete that has spoken out on these issues is Jules Heningburg. While not a household name like some of the other professional athletes above, Heningburg is a professional lacrosse player who grew up in the town where I live, Maplewood, NJ, and who is the son of a prominent local civil rights leader, Gus Heningburg.
His piece in US Lacrosse Magazine (first published on his Twitter feed) is a must read on privilege and his story of growing up bi-racial and playing a traditionally very white sport provides serious insight into the power of privilege and our responsibility to speak up:
I understood privilege early on. Growing up mixed race in Maplewood was better than other places. However, sometimes I wonder if it had anything to do with growing up in a town where my Dad had the privilege of generational connections to the municipalities. In many ways, I was protected by a different kind of privilege.
You are never white enough to be accepted by white people and never black enough to be accepted by black people, entirely. That is the reality I dealt with my entire life. My light skin, wavy brown hair could go either way…
George Floyd could have been one of my brothers, my Dad, a Black friend or teammate. It breaks my heart to also recognize it very likely would never be me. If my skin was a few shades darker, life would be much different. This is a privilege that requires a responsibility to speak up.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.