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Sports are no longer a panacea for your tough times—why that’s okay

that's what she said

On August 27, the director of operations for Duke’s men’s basketball team, Nolan Smith, led a protest outside of K-ville in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

This isn’t the first time matters of racial justice and systemic discrimination have been publicly denounced. Nor is it the first Black Lives Matter protest that many of us have heard of or have taken part in. But there was something about this particular event that made it stand apart from others of the like. Mike Buckmire’s cardboard sign, with the words “Am I Next?” etched out in black marker, was particularly powerful. The strokes that came together to create the written message were well-aligned and compact, leaving no room for viewers to be distracted by a stray line or mark, instead forcing all eyes and thoughts on the message displayed. His voice, along with the urges of his teammates and coaches, signaled something larger to me and to the rest of the Duke community: racial inequality is no longer another bullet point in the long list of faults in the American social system, and athletes—professional or otherwise—will no longer serve as a panacea for your tough times

This message has been prevalent well beyond the realm of the Cameron Crazies for far longer than late August. But people are reluctant (or even simply unwilling) to sacrifice their own lifestyles and habits for something they don’t receive immediate payoffs for. The camaraderie, passions, and intoxicating adrenaline that sports cultivates has become quite ingrained in our lives; this leads some to make deliberate efforts to separate or simply ignore these types of grassroots movements that threaten the foundations of the earth they stand upon. But moments such as Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the national anthem in 2016—to protest many of the same social injustices our basketball team addressed—set a precedent. Sports stars have continued to use their platforms to remind their fans that as much as we may love them, sports stars are people before they are athletes

The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have only served to underscore this movement. Last Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their Game Five warm-up for their opening round playoff series against the Orlando Magic; that game, along with two other playoff games, were all later canceled. That same day, tennis star Naomi Osaka refused to play her semifinals match in the Western & Southern Open; the tournament later also canceled all matches for the day. Similar postponements happened across the WNBA, MLB, and Major League Soccer. 

Whether we like it or not, politics and sports have been deeply intertwined for a good part of the last century. The political climate has played a very consequential role in shaping the sports business and industry in America, and many times for far less applaudable motives than perhaps managers like to tout. As Professors Munger and Salsman liked to so often remind our Econ 361 class, Jackie Robinson’s integration to the MLB was not because the Dodgers cared particularly about racial diversity and social justice. Rather, it was simply because as an African American man, Robinson was part of an “untapped labor pool” that could “justifiably” be paid far less than his white counterparts of equal (or even lesser) ability. The legendary story we grew up learning about how the audaciously progressive Branch Rickey shattered social barriers by signing the first Black MLB player was motivated more by economic incentives than they were any moral compass or respect for Robinson’s  athletic capabilities. 

And even though we’ve made strides in recognizing structural inequities, we still have a long way to go. A primary difference between today and 80 years ago is that modern political polarization has been exacerbated and manipulated by politicians so much that it can no longer be ignored, regardless how much you try. Discussions about racial justice did not diminish during the past five months; instead, their dire severity and significance were only heightened. And as modern media brings these once esoteric considerations and debates to the front and center of our social media pages and TV screens, the amplification of public figures expressing their discontent with the system has also led to an inevitable wave of pushback. After Lebron James made negative comments about President Trump in an ESPN interview, Fox reporter Laura Ingraham commented that “it’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball” and asked James and his fellow sports stars to “shut up and dribble.”  

As blatantly appalling as such statements are, even by the standards of the ferocious social polarization that our country is embroiled in, they are also very indicative of the challenges we face as a society, and also provide some insight into potential steps forward in combating these obstacles. Skepticism and disagreement towards an opposing viewpoint are inherent and natural reactions from any of us, but to thoroughly disparage the opinions of the other side is below all the moral values and standards we supposedly uphold and live by as 21st century humans. Confining athletes to their position on a team and preventing their minds and actions to go beyond the boundaries of the doubles alley and baseline in tennis or the end zones in football upholds the racist and false notion that Black men can only ever excel in sports. It also objectifies players as mere figures to serve as entertainment for our off time—when we want to take a break from the uphill battle that is fighting for racial justice. 

But instead of spending time to gasp in abhorrent disgust at the insensitive and alarming words of the conservative right-wing media, let us continue considering the real stakes at hand. 

Today, our generation is in the midst of a great social movement. It is not a new movement, but the continuation of a fight brought on by several generations, simply in a new context and under new circumstances. We have the power of the media and its ability to swiftly spread information, for better or worse,  at the tap of a screen. As the world becomes more interconnected, we have more eyes who scrutinize our community’s values, and the ways that these values are reflected in how we act, what we say, and how our institutions are organized. These eyes, whether from within our nation or from abroad, have picked out long ago the great inequities and imbalances that our institutions not only exist in, but sometimes proactively nurture. But picking out the problems of a system is easy; the real challenge comes in addressing and amending those faults. 

Being a fan of an athlete who supports BLM or social equity does not make you a great martyr of the movement as well. You can’t start or be part of a social movement if you haven't woken up yourself to realize that enacting lasting change involves slight inconveniences in your own life, since the very institutions your life is founded upon are the ones being challenged. Coach K has indicated to us that no matter how big of a basketball fan you are, basketball cannot and will not be the same if these social inequities persist. In short, you can no longer expect professional sports to be a neutral zone form of escape from the realities of social inequality. It might blow that we can no longer cheer for our favorite athletes with the same bliss we once enjoyed, but to sacrifice this pleasure in the name of fighting systemic racism? Feels pretty worthwhile to me. 

Athletes who take a stand against systemic inequality serve as a reminder that the problems we are trying to address today are not abstract, theoretical concepts that only exist in places such as Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Kenosha, or anywhere that’s not-where-I-am-right-now. There’s no reason to spend all our time and effort pointing fingers at where others have fallen short. Now more than ever, we all need to take the time to self-reflect on how we may have tacitly supported heavily flawed systems. Athletes recognize that their own industry is by no stretch of imagination free from the ramifications of systemic racism, and so they are now fighting tooth and nail to break free from the tainted moulds that folks such as Laura Ingraham try to force them to stay complacent in. Lebon James’ “qualifications” to speak out about political issues isn’t something to scoff at or shrug off; for all the meddling and under-the-table tactics politicians have played in sports, it’s about time those in the sports industry get the opportunity to turn the tables on politics. 

Athletes enjoy a unique role within their communities; their passion on the court or field move us to take pride in who we are and to have a  personal stake in our communities’ wellbeing. Thus, the strong stance sports stars are making now in the movement for social justice are not entirely new. Only this time, the attention has been brought off the court and into the streets of our communities. “I can’t change the world, but goddamnit, I can change Duke while I’m here,” Nolan Smith during his speech at K-ville. The same should hold true for each and every one of us. 

Angela Wu is a Trinity sophomore. Her column “that’s what she said” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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