In these dark times, it’s heartening to see so many in the sports world standing up to talk about social injustice.
But it’s also disheartening that after all these years and all these struggles, it’s still athletes who have the loudest voices on the topic. It speaks of a world in which Blacks haven’t been allowed to progress economically. Only in a realm in which their skills can’t be denied are they pre-eminent and, thus, heard.
But it’s all we have right now, and thank God for it. Did you hear Clippers coach Doc Rivers, son of Maywood, describe what it’s like to be an African American? Did you see him cut himself wide-open and allow you to take a look inside?
‘‘It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,’’ he said last week after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. ‘‘It’s really so sad. Like, I should just be a coach. I’m so often reminded of my color. It’s just really sad. We’ve got to do better. But we’ve got to demand better.
‘‘It’s funny. We protest. They send riot guards. They send people in riot outfits.’’
The shooting has brought on wave after wave of disgust and protest throughout the country, but nowhere has the response been as loud as in the sports world. Bucks players called off their playoff game Wednesday against the Magic after Blake was shot seven times in the back by a police officer Sunday. The NBA followed by postponing playoff games Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and players gave serious consideration to shutting down the season. Several baseball players, most of them Black, chose to sit out games in protest of the shooting. Some NFL teams, including the Bears, canceled practices.
The NHL, slow to the party as usual, eventually called off playoff games for Thursday and Friday. But — and I mean this — better late than never.
Devils star P.K. Subban, who is Black, captured all of it — the hope and the frustration — in one tweet: ‘‘Quotes & Conversations are great...but the actions that come from those quotes & conversations is where the real change happens.’’
That’s why it’s so easy to get depressed about the state of our planet, our country, our city. Star athletes step up and say what needs to be said and done, but does it effect real change? Has it led to more jobs? Better jobs? Fairer educational opportunities?
I think of all the terrific things LeBron James has done for kids in Akron, Ohio, using his own money. Have his educational initiatives spread like a fire, sparking everyday people, Black and white, to try to even the playing field? Not enough, by far. I suggest you take a car ride in Chicago, starting at Austin Boulevard and heading east on Jackson Boulevard. Then tell me how much progress we’ve made. Take a look at the empty lots, the shuttered stores. Study the high school dropout and crime rates on the West Side. Then tell me things are improving.
I’m happy that athletes once again are picking up the torch. But we the people are the ones who need to run with it.
About 10 years ago, I interviewed Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. We talked about his upbringing on the West Side and his high school career at St. Joseph in Westchester. He told me it was his late father’s firm belief that whites thought of Blacks only in terms of entertainment value. Sports and music were there for whites’ consumption, but the door to anything further in life for a Black person, his dad believed, had a white foot blocking it.
Was he so wrong? Most people can’t look away when gifted Black athletes are doing their thing. That goes for bigots, too. In that sense, sports truly are the thing that brings everyone together. You can hate African Americans and still buy tickets to watch them play games. Can still ooh and aah over their abilities. But will you listen to those athletes when they talk about racial injustice? The inequities in our country tell us we haven’t listened nearly enough.
Thomas’ father went to only one of his son’s high school games and left after a half.
‘‘I’ll never forget seeing him walk out,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘It hurt, but I understood his reasoning. I understood his bitterness. I understood his disappointment with the world at that time. He just grew up in a different era, where the stories that were told to us were horrific. Now that I’m older, I do realize there must be a lot of untold stories that must have been more horrific that he couldn’t articulate and verbalize.’’
Bears Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher doesn’t understand all the anger about the shooting of Blake. He wrote on Instagram: ‘‘NBA players boycott the playoffs because a dude reaching for a knife, wanted on [a] felony sexual assault warrant, was shot by police.’’
He failed to mention the part where Blake got shot in the back seven times, with three of his children in the backseat. Surely there was another way to de-escalate the situation. That’s where the rage comes from, Brian. And the despair.
We’ve got miles and miles to go. It will be great when it’s someone other than an athlete leading the charge. And being heard.