Opinion: Sports can be the great healer, but we're not there yet
Never have I wanted sports more. Never have we needed them less.
Sports have always been our great unifier in times of national tragedy, providing both a common bond and a respite – however temporary – from the hurt and despair we feel. We saw it on a grand scale after 9/11, and on a smaller scale after the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Parkland and Orlando, among others.
But we can’t afford to be distracted right now. The brutal death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a white police officer, and the rage and frustration it has released, deserves our full attention. And not simply for a couple of days.
“All these other cases that’s going on, you see the protesters, you see everything. But then, after a while, they’re out of the scene. Nobody is saying nothing,” Floyd’s brother, Terrence, said during a prayer vigil Monday in Minneapolis.
“This is what I’ve been saying to people … Keep my brother’s name ringing! Keep my brother’s name ringing! Keep my brother’s name ringing! Keep my brother’s name ringing! Keep my brother’s name ringing!”
Americans tend to have the attention span of a toddler. We get consumed or transfixed by something and poof! within a few days, sometimes within just a few hours, we either lose interest or something else comes along to divert our attention. A moment that had seemed so monumental, felt as if it was going to have a profound and lasting impact, fades to become little more than background noise.
Were there baseball games now, or an NBA playoff race, we’d have an excuse not to dwell on the racism that remains ingrained in our society, and its direct link to the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. We could obsess over whose odds are better of winning the NBA title, LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, rather than trying to figure out how to improve schools, transportation and economic opportunities in minority communities.
We could let ourselves get lost in the fun and games for an hour or two, not realizing that we’ve lost some of our outrage and good intentions in the process.
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Now, there are some who have accused reporters who’ve preached caution about resuming sports during the COVID-19 pandemic of wanting to ruin sports. No doubt they will say the same about this idea that we don’t need sports right now. Which is ludicrous, given that not having sports would also ruin our livelihoods.
I also know that sporting events can serve as the platform for powerful statements on social justice. Eight years later, the image of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat wearing hooded sweatshirts in honor of Trayvon Martin, who was stalked and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, remains haunting.
If we had games right now, perhaps they would begin with the ball being held for almost nine seconds, representing the almost nine minutes white officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. Maybe James or other players would kneel during the national anthem. We might even see Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, who posted an eloquent statement calling for change, pull up his jersey as he came off the mound to reveal a T-shirt with Floyd’s name on it.
But as impactful as those moments would be, that’s all they would be. Moments.
We need real, lasting change, and the only way to achieve it is to get comfortable with our discomfort. See – really see – the impact a society with racism at its foundation has on people of color. Force the conversations that will make white Americans recognize the many privileges they have simply because of the color of their skin.
“The thing that strikes me is that we all see this police violence and racism, and we’ve seen it all before, but nothing changes. That’s why these protests have been so explosive,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told Dave Zirin in a story published Monday in The Nation.
“But without leadership and an understanding of what the problem is, there will never be change. And white Americans have avoided reckoning with this problem forever, because it’s been our privilege to be able to avoid it,” Popovich added. “That also has to change.”
And it won’t if our attention is elsewhere.
Much as we desperately want them back, sports aren't what we need right now. Fundamental change is, and we can't be distracted until we get it.