From the Astros to the Vikings, sports teams and organizations nationwide have published statements condemning police brutality and racial injustice in response to a surge in protests across the country.
UNC was no exception, with many of North Carolina's varsity sports programs making public statements or taking action in the days following the events and initial protests.
Matthew Andrews is a history professor at UNC, who has taught classes that address how sports and race intersect throughout U.S. history. Upon reading many of the statements published by UNC's athletic programs, Andrews said he appreciated the sentiments put forth, but they had one crucial flaw: timeliness.
“In all honesty, my first reaction was, ‘What took you so long?’” Andrews said. “I feel like the opportunity has been there for so long for people in prominent positions to make strong statements like this. I’m glad people are doing it, absolutely. Doing it is better than not doing it, 100 percent, but I wish people had taken stronger stances on these important issues earlier.”
Andrews also expressed his longstanding frustration with, “general statements that express a need for unity and coming together.” One example Andrews referenced was North Carolina's head men's basketball coach Roy Williams, whose official statement did not explicitly include terms such as racism or police brutality.
Andrews said he was "disappointed" by such statements, saying general language is simply not specific enough to address the issues. In his view, using specific language that refers directly to issues of racism is “important” and “symbolic.”
“I do believe there are degrees of statements out there, and I think some people have said the right thing, and some people have pointed towards the right thing, but not quite,” Andrews said. “In some of these statements, when you say ‘police brutality’ or ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you’re making a critique of very specific things. Sometimes you need to critique things to promote other things.”
Len Elmore, a sports management professor at Columbia University and 10-year NBA veteran, said any statement, no matter how strong, is only as good as the solutions that come out of it. Elmore — who teaches a course dealing with athlete activism and social justice — emphasized the power that athletes and protesters can have in pressuring teams and organizations to act.
“I think there’s a genuine understanding that if [organizations] don’t do something, then this is kind of a tinderbox here,” Elmore said. “Where do we go next? The demonstrations haven’t ceased, and they don’t look like they’re going to end anytime soon. The most encouraging part … is that, unlike past demonstrations, these demonstrations are pretty diverse in their participation. It’s not just the Black community or brown community gathering together trying to fight the power. It’s people who are part of the power structure that are out there demonstrating and putting their safety at risk in order to send a message.”
Elmore emphasized the historical importance Black athletes have held as catalysts of change, two of the most notable examples being Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Elmore said today’s athletes, “know upon whose shoulders they stand.” He credited much of their effectiveness as activists to this same tradition, coupled with the highly-public nature of modern communication and social media.
“The use of social media to get the message out and the visceral nature of being a witness to these crimes; it moves anybody, whether you’re an athlete or not,” Elmore said. “Athletes now have achieved a celebrity status where they have a voice and they are influencers, again, thankfully through social media. Equally as importantly, they also have leverage … it’s the star athletes who are stepping to the forefront.”
It’s not just professional athletes coming forward, either. High-profile UNC athletes including Garrison Brooks and Sam Howell have made public statements regarding racial inequality in America and how important it is to stand with the Black community during this time. Robert Malekoff, the director of the UNC undergraduate sports administration program, said students-athletes are, “in my mind, more empowered than ever before.”
“That, perhaps, is playing a role in the fact that their influence seems to be greater today,” Malekoff said. “I feel like their voices are being heard. That may be a result not just of reacting to this one particular terrible incident, but rather that, over time, their voices are being heard more. Their rights and their opinions are being considered more.”
A sign of this empowerment may be student-athletes feeling the freedom to criticize many of the public statements being made in the aftermath of Floyd's death. A notable example of this came from sophomore men's basketball player Armando Bacot, who tweeted his suspicion about many of the statements made recently, implying some were done to, “protect their brand.”
Malekoff said that, going forward, athletes are going to play a key role in keeping everyone they work with — coaches, executives and organizations themselves — honest and accountable for bringing the change they say they desire.
“Whether it’s the NCAA, the NFL or any other group, the fact that people are speaking out on this is obviously a good thing,” Malekoff said. “Now, the $64,000 question is, ‘what happens next?’ Does this result in tangible actions that begin to address things that many of us find unacceptable or horrific? Will this be the start of the change that many of us seek?”
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