The killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, led to a racial reckoning of sorts in America and at the same time exposed one of its worst-kept secrets: American remains deeply divided by race. This division is true throughout all of American society, including in the world of sports.
Over the years and even today many Black athletes use their platforms to draw attention to the material and non-material consequences of being Black in America. These consequences and mistreatment includes threats to mental and physical health, barriers to asset ownership and wealth, employment discrimination, and, yes, death. Many athletes, including Black college athletes, have chosen to exercise their constitutional rights during the customary playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Black college athletes today, like many before them, kneel, pray silently, or raise fists in the air to create what legendary civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, called a crisis. In his famous, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he wrote about the purpose of such actions. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” The exploitation and harm to Black college athletes and other Black people can no longer be ignored.
Reactions to Black college athletes protesting during the national anthem have ranged from boos in mostly empty stadiums and arenas, due in large part to COVID-19, to hate-filled emails and social media posts, to the introduction of legislation prohibiting anyone from protesting during the playing of the national anthem, such as in the case of the State of Tennessee.
Our focus must remain on the reason Black college players and their supporters protest and voice concerns. It is well-documented and clear that many Americans are frustrated, disappointed, and tired of the ongoing racial inequities in this country that are rooted in long-held antiblack sentiments. ABIS is proud of the bravery that Black college athletes have shown during one of the most tumultuous times in American history. Likewise, ABIS honors the non-Black people who have supported Black college athletes in their quest to create a more equitable and just society for Black people and for all of humanity. Furthermore, ABIS condemns efforts on the part of those individuals, organizations, and corporations who attempt to silence current supporters and discourage others from joining in the fight for justice and the right to speak. To be clear, these acts of marginalization, oppression, and silence are not new tactics. We have seen this page of the racial playbook before.
The case of Coach Jason Shay, formerly the Head Coach of Men’s Basketball at East Tennessee State University is one of the latest examples. Coach Shay recently resigned from his coaching duties, according to an article published by ESPN.com on April 2, 2021. The players contend the coach was forced out of his job for joining his players in protesting racial inequities during the playing of the national anthem, according to the author of the article, Michael Fletcher. In addition, Coach Shay had a vehicle that was loaned to him by Johnson City Honda reclaimed, based upon reports from a local news station.
It was not just “his support for the players,” as some in the media have framed it, that resulted in the loss of his job and vehicle. We join others in believing that the optics of a White man joining with young Black men and protesters to declare the humanity of all Black people and to draw attention to the unequal treatment that Black people face was too uncomfortable for those in power.
The State of Tennessee has the absolute right to introduce legislation. The car company can reclaim a vehicle at will. Similarly, people and organizations committed to addressing racial justice issues also have the right and responsibility to vote for representatives who share their values. They also have the right not to patronize businesses that punish people for doing the right thing.
We believe that we all have a shared responsibility of patriotism to point out the gaps between our stated American principles and how they are actually realized on a daily basis for each and every citizen. America is now on the precipice of an important moment in its history. The nation is awaiting the conclusion of the Dereck Chauvin trial, in which this police officer is charged with three counts related to the death of Floyd. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case that may allow college athletes, including Black college athletes in high-revenue generating sports, to receive education benefits that some deem to deprive them of the ability to be rewarded for their athletic talents and hard work. This case is directly related to 30+ state proposed (or soon to be enacted) legislation that offers athletes some form of control of their name, image, and likeness. Unfortunately, far too many people in and around college sports want to also control the consciousness of Black college athletes and others committed to transformative change.
ABIS stands firm on our mission. We cannot let that happen and remain silent.