Raising Their Voices
By Martin Rogers
Has the voice of an athlete ever counted for more than it does right now?
The United States is still reconciling itself with a heady week that came on the heels of several unprecedented months, but in sports, certain things are coming into clear focus — thanks in large part to the efforts of athletes such as Bubba Wallace.
Foremost is this: that the words uttered by the individuals that sports fans revere for their athletic ability not only have a critical role in the vital discussions coursing through American society, but also carry a weight and power that should not be underestimated.
Time passes in weird and inconsistent ways during days of social flux, but just think for a moment about all that has taken place since May turned into June.
Athletes have spoken. Action has been taken. And things that once seemed ingrained and unshakeable have been shown to be anything but.
It was just a few days ago that Wallace, NASCAR’s only black driver, spoke from the heart about why he felt the Confederate flag had no place at tracks and should be prohibited. On Wednesday, hours before Wallace took to the Martinsville surface in his #43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet, specially decked out in Black Lives Matter livery, racing officials laid down the order that the stars and bars were no longer welcome.
NASCAR was unequivocal in its statement: “The presence of the confederate [sic] flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors, and our industry. Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
For decades, the flag had been a regular fixture flown across the infields of southern tracks, held and cherished by some as a symbol of regional pride. Not everyone was on board with its expulsion, with one Truck Series driver, Ray Ciccarelli, vowing to quit the sport as a result.
This column is not here to demand anyone agrees with me or thinks a certain way. The following, however, are facts.
The Confederate flag represented the Confederate States of America, the cornerstone of which, according to its Vice President, Alexander H. Stephens, in 1861, was the “great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man.” Whatever modern wavers of the flag believe is their true intent, it has been co-opted by hate groups and is inextricably linked with a shameful history where inequality was normalized.
“Hats off to NASCAR,” Wallace told FS1, following the decision. “Just trying to figure out what steps are next. That was a huge pivotal moment for the sport, it creates doors and allows the community to come together as one. That’s what the real mission is here.”
It wasn’t just Wallace’s initial plea that tilted the balance — NASCAR for years has denounced the Confederate flag and offered to trade a U.S. flag or a driver flag for any Confederate flags in the infield — but it sure didn’t hurt. Athletes are discovering that the power of their platform has more of a direct pipeline into the corridors of power than ever before.
On that note, a lot has happened since George Floyd’s life ebbed away under the knee of a Minneapolis policeman.
Last week, 18 elite NFL players, including Super Bowl-winning quarterback Patrick Mahomes, urged their league to make a clear and profound statement denouncing racism. Within a day, Commissioner Roger Goodell came through, repeating the suggested statement nearly word for word while also advocating for and supporting peaceful protest.
As momentous and important as they are, such statements inevitably raise questions from some of what comes next from the Commissioner’s clear commitment. Those closest to the league are already offering their thoughtful suggestions.
“We need more minority head coaches, we need more representation of African Americans in the ownership group and in the coordinator ranks,” former All-Pro running back and Walter Payton award winner Brian Westbrook said on First Things First. “The NFL needs to continue to step up their effort in supporting the black communities that many of the players come from.”
And, given Commissioner Goodell’s impassioned comments, there’s every reason to believe they will. In fact, on Thursday afternoon, the NFL announced it is committing $250 million over the next 10 years to combat systemic racism.
Meanwhile, LeBron James vowed to use his platform for social change, then did something above and beyond what anyone could have predicted.
James revealed this week he is backing (and fronting) a new charitable organization aimed at protecting black voting rights, called More Than A Vote, alongside a number of other professional athletes. According to FOX Sports’ Shannon Sharpe, James is taking the task of enabling others’ civic duty just as seriously as anything he has achieved during his basketball career.
“This dude is on another level,” Sharpe told Undisputed co-host Skip Bayless. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know if we’ve ever seen a guy this big be so active in anything socially. It is good to be morally conscious, but LeBron James is extremely socially conscious, and he’s on another level right now.”
Some voices must be heard from afar, but resonate equally – players across the English Premier League have requested special dispensation to have the words “Black Lives Matter,” not their names, emblazoned across the back of their jersey when the league returns next week.
Some change is a direct reflection of these times. U.S. Soccer, the game’s governing body in this country, didn’t think it appropriate for athletes to take a knee during the national anthem when Megan Rapinoe did so in 2016.
However, the organization removed all barriers from such protests this week, taking proactive steps to repeal its own legislation and permit peaceful symbolism from its men’s, women’s, and age group teams.
It is a confusing time. Things are developing at rapid speed, right when it had started to feel like time was standing still. In some ways, it feels like there has never been more to despair about, yet meanwhile touching stories of humanity, hope and the power of togetherness are everywhere.
You don’t hear the words “stick to sports” much anymore, and it wouldn’t do much good now anyway.
It is too late. Athletes have already realized that their voice is one people want to hear, and that it has the force to enact change.