clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Sports Saturday

When sports and racial injustice collide, white athletes must choose if they’re allies or foes

The bar, in terms of what constitutes true allyship, keeps getting higher, and the choices — in a country whose president calls Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” — keep becoming more starkly defined.

Seattle Seahawks v Chicago Bears
Brian Urlacher, being honored at Soldier Field in 2018.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Meyers Leonard was betwixt and between, and stressed out about it for days. Stand for the national anthem or take a knee?

Ultimately, when the Heat’s opening game in the NBA bubble arrived and the rest of his team knelt in a solemn protest against racism, the 28-year-old center, who is white — and whose U.S. Marine brother did two tours in Afghanistan — chose to stand.

“I can’t fully comprehend how our world, literally and figuratively, has turned into Black and white,” Leonard, who played at Illinois, said that night. “There’s a line in the sand, so to speak: ‘If you’re not kneeling, you’re not with us.’ And that’s not true.”

Maybe not. Meyers wore a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt and vocalized his support of the movement, which is, one supposes, in the same broad vein as taking a knee.

But Black people keep suffering in this country. Black people keep dying. Black people keep being victimized disproportionately by police and in the criminal justice system.

Because of this, for white people, the bar, in terms of what constitutes true allyship, keeps getting higher, and the choices — in a country whose president calls Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” — keep becoming more starkly defined.

Either an ally, or not.

Either with them, or against them.

It’s really that simple, isn’t it?

We saw this play out over a turbulent week in the sports world as current and former athletes and others reacted in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Basketball was at the heart of it. As protests roiled — and after deadly violence struck — in Kenosha, the Bucks refused to take the court Wednesday for their playoff game against the Magic; soon, all NBA games that day, and for two more days to come, were postponed. WNBA players likewise chose not to play Wednesday and Thursday.

Let’s just say not every white person was impressed.

“I think people are a little tired of the NBA, frankly,” President Donald Trump said.

OK, so we can cross him off the ally list. Same, clearly, for former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who spoke, rather like a caveman, at the Republican National Convention. Holtz went after protesters, saying they “like to blame others” and “don’t have pride in themselves.” Finally, after decades of empty shtick, the real Holtz came out.

The real Brian Urlacher also stood up, belittling NBA players in an Instagram post for boycotting games all because of one little seven-bullets-in-the-back incident. Does the ex-Bears linebacker really fail to understand that protests in Kenosha are the result of a revolting roll call of police shootings of Black people? Urlacher restored his hair, and now he’ll have to restore some friendships after publicly taking a position that was, in the words of former teammate Matt Forte, “void of empathy, compassion, wisdom and coherence.”

Then there’s the far more nuanced case of the Cubs. Jason Heyward, who is Black, chose not to play Wednesday in Detroit. His team took the field without him. That led to almost instant, stinging criticism of Heyward’s teammates on social media on a night when three major-league games were postponed because entire teams chose to follow the Bucks’ lead.

According to Heyward, though, certain teammates were conflicted about playing. Heyward himself encouraged the team to play.

“I personally didn’t know how to handle it,” he said Friday, “so I didn’t expect anybody else to.”

Allies? Sure, Heyward’s white teammates can still be allies, even great ones. But some might wish they’d been on the same side of history as the Brewers, Reds, Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Giants. It would’ve taken a hard choice but, in hindsight, an unmistakable one.

White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito threw a no-hitter Tuesday. Two days later, the subject had completely changed. Giolito, who is white, admitted he’d had “blinders” on at times regarding racial injustice in America, too focused on his career to truly engage.

“I had a solid amount of privilege, opportunity, you name it, thrown my way, in life and in this game, and part of that is because of the color of my skin,” he said. “I want to be able to stand alongside my Latin brothers, my Black brothers, on this team and in this league. I think that unity is very important.”

With them, or against them.

In, or out.