Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem before an NFL game in response to police brutality and systemic racism led to other players following his lead, and becoming some of the few athletes to openly address issues outside of the stadium walls.
The former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers quickly became a lightning rod for politicos, a topic of tense conversation among brand sponsors, a deal breaker for NFL team management, and a hot-button issue for millions of Americans trying to reconcile the experiences of a celebrated athlete and a Black man in America. After decades where political activism was more an exception than the rule, the guardrails for athletes to “stick to sports” were starting to rust.
Now even more NFL players, including some Ravens, as well as team managers and owners, have joined the movement as this summer led to a crossroads — a chance to use their platform to contribute to the cause or to sit down and keep their heads in the game.
As a Baltimore native, I couldn’t be more proud of my hometown’s support of its players and their choice to protest. For far too long, we’ve expected players to be grateful for the opportunity to play, at the expense of their right to engage on issues affecting the very communities that cheer them on every week.
The players, like many others in the country, have experienced an awakening. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, from every race, creed, political affiliation and corner of the country have taken to the streets in protest of police brutality and systemic racism.
And it’s not just the NFL. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reversed the association’s position on kneeling in July. “I respect our teams' unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” he said.
Public opinion is changing too. A July CBS poll found that 58% of Americans view kneeling as an “acceptable” form of protest, compared to a similar Reuters poll from 2016 that found 72% of Americans thought such actions were ‘unpatriotic.’ A recent Washington Post poll found that 62% of Americans say professional athletes should use their platforms to express their views on national issues.
Teams across the country were now regularly exercising their right to protest, but the games were still moving forward. Until the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23 and players refused to play. The shot clocks came to a standstill. Cleats were left in the locker rooms. Baseball diamonds remained pristine. Two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka put it well, when she decided to sit out a game: “as a Black woman I feel as if there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
The Orioles sat out a game as well. Team manager Brandon Hyde said: “We’re doing the best we can in our clubhouse and I feel really good about everything that’s going on in our little world, in our clubhouse. I want our guys to know that they have free expression, and be free thinkers, and that they always have my support.”
The Ravens released a statement outlining reform proposals to address systemic racism — a comprehensive action plan that may have never reached a final draft before Mr. Kaepernick’s actions and the tragic deaths by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and one that hits closest to home: Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
With Nike leading the way on its support of the civil protests, leaders at every company — including McCormick and Under Armour — have had to decide their public stance on incredibly charged, controversial issues. It is no longer an option to engage on important issues of the day. It’s a question of how. Consumers, stockholders and boards all expect action, not lip service.
We can see the same shift of sports in our own political system. More than ever before, people who’ve never been involved in politics are speaking up, getting involved, or running for political office. These changes allow for an influx of new ideas and perspectives from both sides of the aisle. Long-standing policies are being challenged and the “this is just the way we do things” mentality is circling the drain.
As for Colin Kaepernick, he still goes unsigned, but did get an apology from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for how the league acted toward him and other players in years prior. Commissioner Goodell lamented, “we should have listened earlier,” marking a turning point for the league and the thousands of players and staff within it.
This isn’t all to say that sports is now an industry of indisputable equality or our political system is truly"‘of the people, by the people, for the people" and we can all go home, but whether it started in sports or the voting booth, progress is progress.
For the rest of us who may be wary of standing up for our beliefs, Tweeting our opinions on important issues, or even joining political campaigns or grassroots movements: it’s time to get off the bench.
Sasha Galbreath (firstname.lastname@example.org) works in public affairs at Clyde Group in Washington, D.C., and previously worked for Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger and as deputy director of communications on Jesse Colvin’s Congressional campaign. Galbreath is a native of Reisterstown.