To Athletes, Walkouts Are More Than Symbolic
August 31, 2020

There has not been a lot of action on the playing fields of professional sports over the past week, but there has been a lot going on. Reacting to a near-fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin three days earlier, players of the Milwaukee Bucks didn't feel up to playing basketball against the Orlando Magic Wednesday night. They didn't show up for their game in protest of the events in their home state. What followed were similar walkouts, even in other sports, and as far away as Seattle and San Francisco.

In total, nine NBA playoff games were postponed over three days, 11 baseball games were called off, six WNBA games were not played, and even the NHL and Major League Soccer briefly shut down. Several NFL teams also called off their practices. While to the casual (white) sports fan, this seemed like just another Black Lives Matter protest, we empathize, but don't really understand the point. However, when you listen to the athletes, coaches, and others, who have gotten very emotional in talking about what it's like being black in America, you begin to understand that this isn't about marches, slogans, and the power that athletes and other celebrities believe they have to make change.

Jacob Blake was shot seven times from behind after opening the door of his car with three of his children inside. The officer who fired has not been arrested. During protests on the streets of Kenosha that followed, an armed 17 year-old, described as a police sympathizer, fired shots into a crowd and allegedly killed two people. With his hands in the air, but the gun still around his neck, police allowed him to walk down the street before he later turned himself in. Blake is still alive, but, according to his father, is paralyzed from the waist down.

Blake's father told the media that the Bucks called him and that the gesture “touched him deeply.” The team also reportedly talked to Kenosha authorities. It was also reported that former President Barack Obama advised them to go back to the court, after team owners also showed displeasure over the incident.

But while the Bucks were happy to get support from the other NBA clubs, they were shocked at the reaction from other sports. In the NBA, three-quarters of the players are black. In baseball, it's less than eight percent. The Milwaukee Brewers were at home Wednesday night, but didn't feel that playing after the events just 40 miles away was appropriate. The Seattle Mariners, who have the most African American players, wanted to sit out their game in San Diego. Instead of a forfeit, the Padres stood in solidarity with them.

Some individuals sat out, Matt Kemp didn't dress, but the Colorado Rockies still played their game. Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts said he was going to skip the game against the Giants, and a lineup was published without him in it, but, as the story goes, pitcher Clayton Kershaw put his arm around Betts and said, “If Mookie doesn't play, we're not going to play either.” The game was postponed.

In what seemed like the strangest of the protests happened on Friday. The Houston Astros had their Wednesday and Thursday games postponed because of the threat of Hurricane Laura, so they did their protest the next night. Ironically, Friday was Jackie Robinson Day, honoring the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. The Astro's and A's had a ceremony, placed jerseys and a Black Lives Matter t-shirt in the batter's boxes and on home plate, held a moment of silence for 42 seconds (Robinson's uniform number) and walked off the field. With every other team back to playing, it seemed a little late, but the emotions were still real, including from Astros manager Dusty Baker, one of just a few black managers in baseball history.

After the Blake shooting, NBA star LeBron James tweeted, “..and you wonder why we don't trust the police.” He also called being black in America “exhausting”. Other black athletes have been saying similar things, and many more have opened up about personal experiences of racial profiling, or even losing loved ones.

Boston sportswriter Jackie MacMullen, who is a frequent panelist on ESPN's Around the Horn, told a poignant story on that program last week. She is white, and said her best friend is a black woman, They both have teenage sons who both recently got their driver's licenses. MacMullen's friend had to explain to her son what to do if, not when, he was pulled over by police, to keep his hands visible at all times, and to slowly moved his hands to reach for his wallet, and do whatever the officer told him. MacMullen, meanwhile, just had her son drive to get ice cream.

Blake didn't freeze when officers told him to. He walked to his car door, where officers believed he had a knife. It seems pretty evident that if Blake froze, as told, he wouldn't be in the hospital right now, but that still doesn't warrant seven shots in the back at close range. The 17 year-old white kid who shot and killed two people but was still allowed to walk down the Kenosha street with his gun proves that there is indeed a double standard.

A lot has been said and written in the past few months about the 'new power' that athletes have when it comes to protests, but the athletes themselves don't think change is coming fast enough. They are right, of course, but often don't realize in this era of immediate gratification, that people don't always listen. If they think not playing a few games is going to get America to say, “okay, you're right, we're not racist anymore,” they are sadly mistaken. Still, the action athletes took in all major sports this week is more than a show. Let's hope there doesn't have to be a reaction to another event like Kenosha anytime soon.

Legendary coach passes: Speaking of black lives, one very notable one was lost today in the death of former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, who died today at the age of 78. Thompson was the first black coach to win an NCAA championship, with the Hoyas in 1984, and was described as a mentor and father figure by players such as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Allan Iverson, and Dikembe Mutombo. Ewing followed in his mentor's footsteps, and is now that school's head basketball coach.

Trading frenzy: Today at 1pm Pacific Time was Major League Baseball's trading deadline, and with expanded playoffs, a shortened season, and many other unknowns associated with Covid-19, many experts expected little activity. The San Diego Padres proved them all wrong, making deals with five different teams and acquiring nine new players, all since Saturday. The headliner was Cleveland pitcher Mike Clevinger, who was considered the best arm available. The Padres are chasing the Dodgers in the NL West, and trail them by 4½ games. The Dodgers did not make any deadline acquisitions, but did trade pitcher Ross Stripling to Toronto for two players to be named later. Stripling has had a disappointing season. The deal was not reported until an hour after the deadline.

Blue note: The Dodgers have baseball's best record at 23-10, and just set a major league record for home runs in a month. The Dodgers hit three homers Sunday in Texas, giving them 57 in the month of August—a record for most homers by any team in any moth, ever.

Add Dodgers: According to the team, the Dodgers' win on Sunday was the 11,000th in franchise history, dating back to 1884... With the shortened season over half done and Tuesday being September 1, the Dodgers magic number to make the playoffs is 17. To win the NL West, it's 20.

What coronavirus?: People are still wearing masks, many businesses and schools are still closed, and the Oakland A's have had their Monday and Tuesday games postponed because of a positive Covid-19 test, but other sports are carrying on. Today was the start of the U-S Open Tennis Championships, Saturday is the Kentucky Derby, and NFL football starts next week! Are you ready? Some franchises even still think they'll have fans in the stands for the openers.

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