All told, the ESPYs are a nauseating affair — an Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly awards show wherein the wealthiest sports media company endows itself with the authority to determine who played the best. The awards don’t showcase the athletes so much as the outsized influence of the Worldwide Leader. The event happens because it can.
That subtext made the opening of last week’s show all the more remarkable. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James — four of the NBA’s best and most visible players — transformed a vacuous event into a crucial one as they responded to the recent killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers.
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“The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust and anger that plagues so many of us,” said Anthony. The players went on to affirm the value of Black lives while acknowledging the important societal role police can play. Then, James addressed his colleagues: “Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence,” he implored.
Rejecting the vow of political silence by which superstars often abide, these players took a firm political stand on a national stage. Their address invoked activist athletes of yesteryear like Bill Russell, John Carlos and the late Muhammad Ali.
While this political stand may have seemed astonishing, or even groundbreaking in the minds of some, numerous Black athletes had previously laid the groundwork for this call to action.
Back in September 2015, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told ESPN, “As a Black man, I do understand that Black lives matter… I stand for that.” And on July 9, 2016, the entirety of the Minnesota Lynx, a WNBA team, wore warmup shirts bearing the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The attire prompted four off-duty cops, working private security for the game, to walk off the job. Perhaps most notably, Serena Williams responded to the police killing of Philando Castile from across the ocean at Wimbledon. “In London I have to wake up to this,” she tweeted. “When will something be done — no REALLY be done?!?!”
All of these athletes, however, have something in common: they are Black. Perhaps James could’ve directed his admonition at white athletes in particular, who have largely remained quiet amid the violence. By my count, the only white athletes who have spoken out are former Oakland Athletics reliever Huston Street and Lindsay Whalen, a point guard for the Lynx.
The morning after the ESPYs, ESPN commentator Bomani Jones noted this absence of white voices during an appearance on the show First Take. “What would Tom Brady feel about this? What does Peyton Manning feel about this?” he wondered. “If they said something, I bet you’d see more people responsive to change. This can’t be the exclusive responsibility of four really good basketball players.”
Jones’ cohost, Freddie Coleman, agreed: “When you bring in race, politics and religion things get really muddy. And a lot of people don’t want to be in those muddy waters.” It’s time white athletes, especially prominent ones like Brady and Manning, risked sullying their apolitical public personas. Black athletes face mounting pressure in that regard. White athletes should be held to the same standard.
The need for white athletes to come forward reflects a growing national sentiment that racial issues like police brutality go beyond the identity of those most adversely affected. “This is not just a Black issue,” said President Obama last week. “All fair-minded people should be concerned.” In turn, a movement has sprung up demanding whites acknowledge the systemic racism that renders Black lives less valuable. Hashtags and testimonials to that effect have flooded social media, and at one of many recent rallies, over 100 people gathered to break white silence outside the Louisville, Kentucky police headquarters last week.
“Part of why this continues to happen is too many of us who are white are silent when it comes to police abuse of Black or Brown people,” said Carla Wallace, an organizer of the event.
White athletes carry an even greater obligation to speak up than most, since they benefit from a workplace that is overwhelmingly Black. The National Basketball Association and National Football League are made up of 75 percent and 68 percent Black players, respectively. Though Major League Baseball trails far behind with just 8 percent representation for Black players, it’s safe to say Black players make up a disproportionate number of professional athletes.
“Peyton Manning, Kevin Love, Tom Brady, Mike Trout, Aaron Rodgers: this is the culture that has made you famous,” wrote The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin. “It’s time, white athletes: take some of the damn weight.”
Living and working alongside Black peers, white athletes offer a unique vantage from which to criticize racial injustice. Such integration, after all, is hardly the norm. A recent Brookings Institution study found that many Americans, by virtue (or vice) of circumstance, carry on segregated lives. The study used zero as a measure for perfect integration and 100 as one of complete segregation, and found that most of the country’s largest metropolitan areas have segregation levels of 50 to 70.
In the absence of interactions with Black neighbors, whites can succumb to biases steeped in history and reinforced by popular culture. “It’s the perception of threat from an out-group, regardless of the actual presence of threat, that predicts prejudice,” Kimberly Rios, a professor of psychology at Ohio University, told The New York Times. As high-profile members of the white community, white sports stars can help alleviate racial ills by acknowledging white supremacy and demonstrating solidarity with their Black teammates.
If white athletes step forward, then maybe a commitment to humanity and justice will come from the most powerful white people in sports: the team owners. Then we’d really be getting somewhere.