Puppets on a string no more

In the past, professional athletes have protested by taking a knee during the national anthem. Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

James Salazar

Staff Writer

The sports world came to yet another screeching halt on Aug. 26 as athletes all over the country protested their games in the name of social justice. This day was not the result of a summer of activism, but rather the product of a corporate world which has spent years frowning upon athletes who choose to take a stand in lieu of entertaining the masses. 

The wave began when the Milwaukee Bucks of the NBA boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the team’s home state of Wisconsin. 

Within hours, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) teams, MLS teams, and MLB teams followed the Bucks, opting not to play their scheduled games. The tennis world also felt the disruption as Naomi Osaka withdrew from her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open. 

After meeting with their respective teams and players, leagues across the country have been able to resume their seasons. However, much more has to be done than having a one-off discussion where people in suits listen to player grievances. 

For too long, sports executives have seen athletes as nothing more than cash cows. In the eyes of some owners and front office personnel, athletes are supposed to distance themselves from their communities and simply show up to play their sport. 

The NFL is notorious for not acknowledging or valuing its players’ right to protest. Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the league for his decision to kneel during the national anthem, which prompted the late Houston Texans owner Bob McNair to say, “You can’t have inmates running the prison,” in regards to other players supporting and continuing Kaepernick’s protest. 

Given the NFL’s recent mistreatment of players, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s words of encouragement this past summer for teams to sign Kaepernick and advocate for change felt more like damage control than an earnest plea. 

Instances of a team’s ownership devaluing its players isn’t limited to the NFL. The Atlanta Dream, a WNBA franchise, has been locked in a stalemate with co-owner U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., over the league’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Loeffler criticized the league for sowing division in sports, and her words have revealed a one-sided relationship. 

During her election campaign, Loeffler used her co-ownership of the team as an example of her community ties. Now that her players want to have conversations around pressing social issues, Loeffler’s refusal to listen shows that she only stands with the team when it is beneficial to her cause. 

The devaluement of an athlete reaches well beyond the court. When the NBA was having talks about resuming the season, Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving was labeled a “disruptor” by ESPN Senior NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski for asking if playing basketball would detract from the ongoing social justice movement. Irving’s concerns, though valid, weren’t taken seriously because he was only being seen as an athlete. 

When teams and players chose not to play their respective sports, they reclaimed a sense of agency that has been minimized for far too long. Athletes are not puppets who should be paraded around to offer a distraction, nor are they pawns who exist for the sole purpose of making money for their bosses. These athletes belong to communities that are suffering at the hands of systemic racism and police brutality. 

Should leagues continue to fail their players, these men and women will take matters into their own hands and direct the public’s attention to the bigger issues at hand, regardless of how inconvenient it is for those who would like to turn a blind eye. 

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