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Opinion: As America burns amid protests after George Floyd's death, it's time to quit telling athletes to 'stick to sports'

Visitors make silent visits to organic memorial featuring a mural of George Floyd, near the spot where he died while in police custody, Sunday May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minn. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Visitors make silent visits to organic memorial featuring a mural of George Floyd, near the spot where he died while in police custody, Sunday May 31, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minn. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Stick to sports was always a crutch for the comfortable and cowardly.

It was a dirty, disgraceful lie, promulgated by those who see the athletes they watch as two-dimensional instruments of their own entertainment, not as people whose platform should be used to tell the truth about the experience of being black in this country.

It is an avatar for why America is burning. It can’t be allowed to happen again.

Eventually, the protests, which were started after the death of George Floyd, will calm down. Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed in police custody May 25 in Minneapolis.

Sports will come back, even as a pandemic has killed more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens. The games will look different for awhile. We won’t have those filled stadiums and the images that allow people with no desire to lift the rug on this country’s history to drone on about how sports bring us together.

But that’s not really true. Not when the people who play them, and sometimes cover them as journalists and commentators, are shouted down for trying to make the rest of us understand that even wealth and fame don’t inoculate anyone from racism.

Stick to sports sounds silly today, doesn’t it?

It has to when you think about Jaylen Brown driving 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta and Malcolm Brogdon leading a peaceful protest in their hometown at a time when the NBA is trying to figure out how to come back in July.

It has to when you see the UConn women’s basketball team declare definitely, courageously that, “Yes, we are rioting. And yes, we are protesting because we are tired of innocent black lives dying at the hands of police officers who do not care about our humanity.”

There were many, many more statements this weekend from pro athletes, from college athletes, from coaches and from team owners that expressed anger, sadness and uncertainty about how this ends. You can question the sincerity of them if you wish. In some cases, particularly among many NFL owners, there are reasons to doubt whether the sudden willingness to address racism and police brutality are anything more than a short-term public relations ploy. ​

But this time, it feels as if we’re not going back.

Athletes are not going to stick to sports anymore. Not just black and brown athletes, but more and more white athletes, too. They’re going to call racism by its name, and they’re not going to aid and abet the comfort of those who don't want the reality of being black in America shoved in their face.

Stick to sports, after all, is a cancer. It’s insidious. It grants emotional refuge to those who deny the inequality in our midst because it allows them to feel as though rooting for a black person in a sporting event does not make them a racist.

Of course, we know that is not true. Athletes hear those epithets from the stands. They see them on social media. And yet, they’re expected to turn the other cheek and not complain or speak out. God forbid they get involved in politics or support a candidate for president. That would be really offensive, wouldn’t it?

This is the game that people like Fox News host Laura Ingraham play when they tell LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble.” The black athletes? They can take anything, no matter how often they get racially profiled or how many of the innocent people from their community get killed by police. In that universe of bad faith, it’s the offended white fans who really need the protection from their feelings.

It’s time to stop protecting them. It’s time to stop worrying about what they think. It’s time to instead welcome them to the real world.

Stick to sports is for the feeble.

Its underlying theory is that people watch games because they want a good time without the complication of having to think about the people they’re watching, who they really are and where they come from. And the people who promote it will tell you that even a small amount of discomfort to watch someone do amazing, awe-inspiring things with a football or basketball is too high a price. Well, the price just went up.

It went up because the reality about systemic racism in America has been suppressed too many times and sports too often used as an excuse to suppress it. It went up because athletes have grown tired of the charade that kumbaya corporatism has wanted them to obey. It went up because suppression of their voice has finally boiled over. It went up because honesty is the only way to accomplish what all these sanguine statements from teams and athletic departments say they want for our future as a country.

Stick to sports is not honest. And it needs to go away forever.