By Christian Crittenden
During the 2016 NFL season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans and racial injustice in America.
Four years later things may not have changed much: Unarmed African-American men are still being killed by police officers and Kaepernick is not playing professional football. What has changed, however, is how sports leagues including the NFL now view protesting and the Black Lives Matter movement.
What sparked this change was the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American, by police. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the death, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, according to video of the event. The three officers with Chauvin that day have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Leagues like Major League Baseball, the National Football League and even NASCAR seem to have a new perspective regarding the Black Lives Matter movement than they did when Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 and was essentially blackballed from playing in the NFL.
“This is what Kaepernick was talking about four years ago,” Fox Sports Rob Parker said. “Unarmed black men being killed, police brutality and what-not was going on. I think it really resonated. It’s a shame that Floyd had to lose his life. But I think that was the turning point for a lot of people.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released a video supporting players as they fight oppression and racism. The NFL later agreed to donate $250 million over 10 years to “combat systemic racism and support the battle against the ongoing and historic injustices faced by African-Americans.”
Other sports leagues have made similar moves to express their support.
The most surprising and compelling change of heart may have come from a sport that has the image of being conservative and predominantly white: NASCAR. The sport banned confederate flags from all NASCAR events on the heels of a race at Talladega Superspeedway, which angered many fans.
While the fans were upset, many of the drivers and officials fully supported the decision and stood behind Bubba Wallace, the only black driver on the NASCAR Cup Series. In the weeks following the death of Floyd, Wallace wore a shirt saying “I Can’t Breathe/ Black Lives Matter” and raced in the No. 43 car with “Black Lives Matter” painted on the car.
During a weekend race at Talladega, members of Wallace’s crew found what was believed to be a noose tied in his garage stall. He did not see the object himself, but he was informed about it, and the report was leaked. Before the race, many of the drivers and pit crew members marched in solidarity with Wallace on the rack.
It was later determined by an FBI report that it was not a noose, but instead a garage pull that had been in the stall months prior to the race.
“Bubba Wallace has realized that he is that guy to be in this fight,” Forbes.com sports columnist Terence Moore said. “That’s why I give him credit for it because he has said that now I’m in this fight I’m not going to back down. He’s been very impressive with the things that he’s said and hasn’t said, for that matter.”
Major League Baseball
In 2017, former Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the national anthem. The action was criticized within the sport, and while Maxwell struggled on the field, his time in the league didn’t last long after that.
Three years later, three players and two coaches and a manager from the San Francisco Giants, the city where Kaepernick played, took a knee during the anthem, and “Black Lives Matter” has been seen in various spots around the league.
The most surprising sign of solidarity came from the Boston Red Sox, when a “Black Lives Matter” banner was hung out of Fenway Park. The city of Boston has a history of racism, including in sports. Several players in recent years have said publicly they have heard racial slurs from fans while playing at Fenway Park.
“I think they did take a step forward this year in being able to accept the fact, and bring to light that blacks do face racism at Fenway Park,” Boston Globe sports reporter Julian McWilliams said.
It is hard for African-Americans to voice their opinions in this sport because African-American players are so few and far between, McWilliams said. Most of them do not have the clout to go out and take a stand without having their job security seriously affected.
But now, he said, the current climate has made it easier for these players to make statements, given the support that the league has shown.
While it did take some time for some leagues to come around, players have continued to fight for what they believe in.
Lebron James has been at the forefront supporting the Black Lives Matters movement from the beginning, even before Colin Kaepernick. In 2014, James led other NBA players in a move to wear “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts after Eric Garner died while in a chokehold by police. Garner said “I Can’t Breathe” 11 times before he died.
Moore said without James, the current social justice movement might not have found its way into sports.
“I am going to attribute a lot of what’s going on, if not most of what has happened with the explosion of social consciousness on one guy, James,” Moore said. “And when people look back, 20,30,40 years from now he will be looked at as the Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali, Arthur Ashe of this particular era.”