[There’s a lot happening in and around the world of sports these days. So for my annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of such issues. Leading up to a special weekend post on the genuinely revolutionary possibilities of sports!]
On the huge step that athletes took in 2020, and where we go from here.
There’s a reason why I put an image of Colin Kaepernick and his anthem protests on the cover of Of Thee I Sing—few moments over the last few years have been more inspiring to me, or more representative of the best of critical patriotism and American ideals and identity, than was Kaepernick’s controversial and courageous social justice stand (so to speak). At the time, of course, his protests were also so singular that they made it all too easy for the NFL to single Kaepernick out and make an example of him (a likely illegal example at that), one that has frustratingly endured for the next five and a half years of Kaepernick’s inability to find work in the league (despite, as my sons and I like to note, far less talented players like the historically horrific Nathan Peterman continuing to get backup QB jobs). The subsequent years have certainly seen other moments of impressive athlete activism (from both individuals and teams), but I would nonetheless call those moments, like Kaepernick’s, the exceptions to the overall rule.
All that changed, and changed quite dramatically and powerfully, in 2020. I was particularly impressed by the thoroughgoing commitment of both NBA players and the entire league to foregrounding activism when they returned to play in the Orlando bubble during the summer of 2020—a commitment that was amplified further when, in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, NBA and WNBA players took the additional activist step of an unprecedented, profoundly inspiring work stoppage. But many other leagues and athletes took their own activist steps in 2020, such as the NFL’s decision to play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before each of the 2020 season’s opening games (a largely symbolic gesture to be sure, but also a striking contrast to the vitriol with which Kaepernick’s pre-game protests were met just a few years earlier). Taken together, this collection of athlete protests and activisms has made it truly impossible for any sports leagues, and indeed any sports fans, to embrace any longer the whole “shut up and dribble” mentality as either a practical possibility or a collective goal.
So what’s next? Will we gradually return to an era where athlete activisms are once again the exception, or is this collective sense of social and political purpose here to stay? Obviously I don’t know the answers to those questions, and as with every post this week (and every other week) I welcome your thoughts and ideas in comments (or by email if you prefer). But when I wrote in my holiday wish post for my sons that I hope their world doesn’t entirely or ever get “back to normal” after the disruption that was 2020, this is precisely one of those things that I hope remains forever changed. That doesn’t mean that athletes have to protest or be activists all of the time, no more than any of us do at our jobs or in our lives. But it does mean that we should accept and indeed celebrate a level of consistent activism from both these prominent public figures and (even more importantly) from the powerful institutions and leagues of which they’re part. I hope that in a few years’ time we’ll look back on 2020 as the start of a perennial trend when it comes to athlete and sports activisms.
Next SportsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Aspects of sports in 2021 you’d emphasize?