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An empty arena with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the floor.
An empty arena after all NBA playoff games were postponed during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex.
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About more than playing ballgames

NBA solidarity strike a reminder: Sports is always political, - and tied to racial progress.

Sports is the same thing happening over and over.

Teams meet, agitate a ball, which is thrown and caught. Tossed through a hoop or hit with a bat. Sometimes kicked. There’s also hockey.

I am not insulting sports fans, mind you. I understand that for them, sports is the hub on which the universe spins. It just isn’t my table. The night the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, I attended a lecture at the Field Museum on tattooing in Polynesia. I was not alone.

Sports is the same thing happening over and over.

To me. Generally. But not always. Occasionally, something noteworthy happens. Something will transpire in the world of sports so seismic that even I perceive it, like a deaf person sensing the orchestra by vibrations through the floor.

Last Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks announced they wouldn’t play their first round playoff game against the Magic. Not with Kenosha roiled nightly with unrest over the shooting of Jacob Blake.

The NBA didn’t count the game as a forfeit but picked up the series three days later. The rest of the NBA, even some baseball teams joined in. Now they’re talking about using basketball arenas as polling places.

That seems significant.

The Right erupted in anguish. “LeBron is just trying to outwoke the rest of the NBA. Clear negotiation ploy,” said Fox Sports Radio’s Clay Travis. Military displays are fine; that isn’t politics, that’s patriotism.

But should those who actually play the game try to use their considerable influence to help others, they’re told to shut up and stay out of politics.

Sports is always political. Even when Black athletes couldn’t play, it was political. Whites just didn’t know it. The exclusion of minorities was not ethical, certainly not athletic. It was political. Changing that was political, too, and started long before Jackie Robinson. In 1910, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson faced Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope.”

The New York Times saw what was at stake: “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors,” it editorialized. Political.

Johnson did win, and violent white backlash rippled across the country. Political. Then as now, violence was wrong when Black people did it, but by white people, it was justice. The film of the fight was banned. Former President Teddy Roosevelt, a boxing fan, urged the public to “guarantee that this is the last prize fight to take place in the United States.” What good is a sport a Black man can win? They didn’t call it cancel culture then. Political.

The three top heavyweight boxers of the 20th century — all with strong Chicago ties — are a quick course on how sports forced white racial attitudes to change. Johnson was unapologetic and hated. Sent to prison for dating white women, he was hung in effigy at State and Walton in 1912.

After Johnson lost to Jess Willard in 1915, another Black man wasn’t permitted a shot at the title for 22 years, for fear of creating another Jack Johnson. Political. Joe Louis’ manager finagled his championship fight at Comiskey Park in 1937 by making sure Louis maintained a modest, low-key demeanor — he was apologetic and loved, or at least accepted.

The third champion was Muhammad Ali — unapologetic and loved, though not when he refused the draft in 1966. Stripped of his title, vilified. His Chicago bout canceled. Political.

America caught up to Ali, the way it’s catching up to Colin Kaepernick. He became a model of courageous refusal, a template for what is happening now. Ali is the reason the superlative reputation of Michael Jordan, for all his competitiveness and athleticism, curdled over time. He didn’t want to jeopardize shoe sales.

Sports often leads. Major league baseball integrated in 1947. Harry Truman ended racial discrimination in the Army in 1948. Those two events are not unrelated.

Ask yourself: Why did every NBA player go along with last week’s actions, even though many of them never protested racial injustice in their lives? Answer: Because they’re teammates. They’re on the same team and have to support each other in order to win.

That’s a valuable lesson at this chaotic, divided national moment. Maybe there’s more to this sports stuff than I thought.

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