Many professional and college athletes and coaches did not “stick to sports” over the weekend as demonstrations broke out around the country in reaction to the death of George Floyd and other black people at the hands of police.
Dozens of figures from the sports world shared messages of anger and a desire for change, including several prominent white athletes. Some basketball players even joined in the protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere around the U.S.
“The murders are normal,” Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III tweeted. “The protest and riots are normal. The crying out for help is normal. Doing nothing about it is normal. We need a new normal. The protest and Riots are fighting to Normalize Equality. I’m all for that new normal.”
Floyd died Monday after he was arrested on suspicion of trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. Video showed a police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck on the ground for almost nine minutes. Chauvin and three other officers at the scene were fired and Chauvin was later charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
For many, the situation evoked the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who died from being held in a chokehold by police in New York. Both Floyd and Garner were heard on video saying “I can’t breathe,” which in 2014 became a rallying cry that LeBron James and many other NBA and NFL stars printed on black warm-up T-shirts they wore before games.
Retired NBA player Stephen Jackson revealed he was friends with Floyd from growing up together in Texas. Jackson led a protest in front of Minneapolis City Hall Friday, which was attended by Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns.
“You can’t tell me, when (Chauvin) had his knee on my brother’s neck, taking his life away with his hand in his pocket, that that smirk on his face didn’t say, ‘I’m protected,’” Jackson said in part.
Ohio State basketball player Seth Towns was briefly detained at a Columbus, Ohio-based protest. And Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said he drove 15 hours to lead a protest in his home state of Georgia on Saturday.
“This is a peaceful protest,” he said during an Instagram stream. “Being a celebrity, being an NBA player, don’t exclude me from no conversations at all. First and foremost, I’m a black man and I’m a member of this community.”
Mystics guard Natasha Cloud wrote in The Players’ Tribune that “millions” of people help to “protect those racist cops” from justice by staying silent — describing it metaphorically as, “your knee is on my neck.”
In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote that the black community was wondering “whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”
“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts,” he wrote. “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer.”
Wizards star Bradley Beal spent much of his Saturday engaging in discussion with Twitter followers about the right path forward. Early on, he asked, “If peaceful protest don’t work. Looting/rioting don’t work. What do we do?,” a tweet that received more than 20,000 likes.
“It’s funny how people think: I’ve been rich my whole life,” Beal also tweeted. “I forgot where I came from. I don’t deal with what they do! I’m privileged. I don’t get racially profiled. I don’t get stopped for nothing. I lost touch of what’s going on. All because I made it to the league.”
Beal was one of several to speak out against looting businesses in the areas where protests took place.
“We need to tear down the system of oppression not destroy our community,” Griffin III wrote.
Black activists often call for white allies to stand with them and condemn racist acts. In the sports world this weekend, Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow was among the most prominent white figures to do so.
“The black community needs our help,” Burrow wrote on Twitter. “They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”
Nationals closer Sean Doolittle began his own message on social media by calling racism “America’s original sin.”
“It was here before we even forged a nation, and has been passed down from generation to generation,” Doolittle wrote. “And we still struggle to acknowledge that it even exists, much less atone for it. The generational trauma of racism and violence is killing black men and women before our eyes. We are told it is done in the name of, ‘law and order,’ but there is nothing lawful nor orderly about these murders.”
Another white Nationals player, minor league catcher Tres Barrera, noted that he is married to an African-American woman.
“As a future father of an African American child and a husband to an African American woman, it is frightening and sickening to see what continues to go on,” he tweeted. “We need change. MY FAMILY MATTERS.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who is also white, was one of the first prominent sports faces to call Floyd’s death a murder. Over several days Kerr tweeted and retweeted opinions critical of President Trump and Vice President Pence, including sharing an article about Trump titled, “The Psychopath in Chief.”
Kerr, LeBron James and sports columnists alike drew a straight line from former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests in 2016 to the image of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before games and said his aim was to protest police brutality.
On Friday, Kaepernick launched the “Know Your Rights Camp Legal Defense Initiative” to pay for lawyers for those arrested while protesting in Minneapolis — whom Kaepernick called “freedom fighters.”
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