Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick

When sports began their shutdown at the beginning of America’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic back in March, I wrote about how sports provide an escape for society during tough times.

And as times have gotten even tougher with the recent wave of unjust treatment of African Americans and the resulting protests, leagues, teams and players have drawn attention away from their return-to-play discussions to speak on the latest happenings. Before I dig too deep on the grander scale of professional sports, I want readers to understand why the issue is being talked about.

Quite simply, because it’s important. And more importantly, it’s an uncomfortable conversation that people genuinely need to have.

As a black man myself, there are several black student-athletes throughout Southeast Ohio that I’ve built personal relationships with. And those kids especially, need to know that they’re supported. They need to know that they matter. And it would be foolish of me not to use the platform, no matter how small or big it is, to speak out on the subject.

Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that they matter anymore than anyone else, simply that they matter. In a country built on the backs of black slaves, in a country that practiced segregation for a majority of its existence, in a country where people of their race are killed for simply existing, African-Americans are often not made to feel that way. That should not be the opinion-splitting topic that it’s become.

And that’s why it’s been vital to hear messages of support from some of the biggest stars in sports, comprised of all sorts of races, ethnicities and backgrounds. From black superstars like LeBron James to marginal white talents like Chicago Blackhawks forward Zach Smith, the sports world has seen solid unity, particularly on an individual level.

On an organizational level, most notable messages came from the National Football League, which has seen the most public scrutiny on their handling of this issue since Colin Kaepernick led the charge to kneel during the national anthem at games in 2016. A once-promising star who was seconds away from a Super Bowl title in his first season as a starter, he’s now most-known for his symbolic protest, which has also been his last action on an NFL field.

That’s why it was painfully ironic that the San Francisco 49ers, the team Kaepernick played for before his release and subsequent blackballing, released a statement as part last week, a social media hashtag created to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement and black businesses instead of any kinds of self-promotion.

But that didn’t stop the brands from branding, the Niners perhaps the most egregious of all. Their black box post, which comprised a large majority of the movement Tuesday, drew ire from all corners of society. The very same team who let go of a player for peacefully protesting black injustice is now taking a stance on the same side of the person they dropped like that?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement last week on the matter, mentioning that the league realizes there is an “urgent need for action,” and other buzzword phrases. Again, this comes from a league who blackballed a black quarterback for peacefully protesting, something those who oppose recognizing today’s racial inequalities claim they wish today’s protests would be (the ensuing riots and their causes are an entirely different discussion).

Is it possible that the league and the people who form it learned in recent years that the handling of kneeling was wrong, and to start taking the matter with an intense increase of priority? Sure, and I hope that’s the case.

Prior to the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the NFL’s proposed, and quickly retracted, idea to use draft capital as incentive to hire more minority coaches was one of sports’ biggest debate points since the coronavirus hit the nation. While it was painfully offensive to compare the value of a minority coaching candidate to draft position, it was also evident the league was at least willing to listen when they quickly walked the idea back. Now, the league has to find ways to follow through with being the change it claims to aspire to be.

But New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees showed that there is still a disconnect. He said in an interview with Yahoo that he “will never agree with anybody respecting the flag of the United States of America,” before explaining that the flag and anthem reminds him of his grandfathers that fought in World War II.

Drew, do you know how many black men fought beside your grandfathers and returned to a country where they lacked the same basic liberties your grandfathers did, those same liberties that are hardly afforded to all minorities today? The entire point of protesting is to draw attention to a cause and ask for help, ask for change.

When people like Brees continue to be hung up on the kneeling issue, they show that they aren’t lending an ear to what the protesting is about, whether it be the kneeling, whether it be the civil rights protests of the 1960s, or whether it be the protests that have spawned across the world today.

His words were shocking. It drew the ire of players around the sports world, including his own teammates. It wasn’t because of what he said, it was because of who he is and how important his voice could have been in solidarity. I don’t believe he knew how much support he had from the African-American community because of the things he’s done in the New Orleans community, which is 60 percent black.

Since then, Brees has apologized for his lack of empathy and complete understanding of why kneeling has and will continue to happen. His words don’t tarnish what he’s done for New Orleans over the past 15 years, but he needs to take more action now to help bridge the gap.

African-Americans and all other minority groups want to be heard. They want white people to realize the privilege they have. That privilege may not be tangibly felt or noticed, but it’s there, and you can tell it’s there by not even noticing you have it. That’s how ingrained it is.

The teams and leagues that collect billions of dollars from these people need to realize that. The fact there are no black owners in the NFL is proof that it exists, right in front of the people who hire PR firms to tweet out generically branded messages. Players like Brees need to acknowledge it as well and understand they can have a positive role in making the change that is being begged for in our streets.

Black lives, particularly the young black men and women who see prejudice the most, need to know that they matter. And the athletes who fill the posters on their walls and backgrounds on their phones can be the vectors to help them. They just have to be willing to listen.

Kaepernick tried to warn America four years ago about police brutality in America, yet few actually heard and understood what his message was. Keep in mind, the idea of kneeling came from a conversation he had with a veteran. And yet, here we are four years later.

Once sports are back and players begin to take the field once again, expect kneeling to take place from one stadium or arena to another across America. But keep this in mind, although the kneeling started the conversation, it’s what we as a society do once we stand up that will show the true change.

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