Sports activism is working, maybe

Money changes everything

ColinLast week, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play basketball against the Orlando Magic. Other NBA teams followed suit, and players from the WNBA, MLB, and other sports did likewise. And I felt that maybe, just maybe progress is slowly being made.

Sports activism, of course, is not new. Here is Athletes and activism: The long, defiant history of sports protests. One could argue whether some of the particulars are actually protesting, but that’s a quibble.

In my recollection, this story is one of the reasons I always loved Bill Russell. In 1961, “while in Lexington, Kentucky, for an exhibition before the 1961-62 season, Russell and the other black members of the Boston Celtics were refused service at a restaurant. They boycotted the game, a groundbreaking statement at a time when blacks were still expected not to complain publicly about discrimination.”

I remember a photo, probably in Ebony and/or JET from June 4, 1967. Jim Brown, Russell, Lew Alcindor, and “other prominent black athletes met in Cleveland in a show of support for Muhammad Ali, who had refused induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector. Two weeks later, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and stripped of his heavyweight title.” Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, continued to be an outspoken advocate for change.

Mexico City, 1968

I was watching the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium after winning the gold and the bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter run. “They stepped onto the podium shoeless but decked out in black socks and gloves. Then they raised their fists above their bowed heads to silently protest racial discrimination.”

It was not a spontaneous act. “It was only months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr… In the lead-up to the Olympics, Smith, and Carlos helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights…” The group saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world… Though the project initially proposed a boycott of the Olympics altogether, Smith and Carlos decided to compete in the hopes they could use their achievements as a platform for broader change.”

A massacre in Mexico took place just 10 days before the opening of the Summer Games. The Mexican government “killed four (the government’s official count) or 3,000 students. Carlos and Smith were deeply affected by these events and the plight of marginalized people around the world.” Smith told Smithsonian magazine in 2008, “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”

The third man on the podium, Peter Norman of Australia, “became part of the protest, too, albeit in a less direct way.” Norman “supported his fellow Olympians’ protest, in part because of the intolerance he had witnessed in Australia.” His backing cost him his track-and-field career.

Black Lives Matter

In the 2010s, several prominent players wore apparel bringing attention to the situation on the streets. “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts were worn by Cavaliers teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving and other NBA players before their games on Dec. 8, 2014. Those were, unfortunately, the last words of Eric Garner in July of that year. And of George Floyd almost six years later.

In July 2016, members of the three WNBA teams began wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to WNBA games to protest the recent deaths of unarmed black people in police custody.

That autumn, Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem started a movement in the NFL. In early June 2020, the NFL’s Roger Goodell admitted the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.”

Only a week earlier, the NFL releases a statement on the death of George “Floyd and the ensuing global protests… The reactions were … in “the vein of, ‘You could have led the fight against police brutality and racial injustice four years ago, but instead, you worked against peaceful protesters like Kaepernick.'” Indeed, Kaepernick is “now a 32-year-old free agent quarterback who hasn’t played in the NFL since the last week of the 2016 season.”

As Slate noted: “Think back to the outrage of certain white NFL fans [most prominently, IMPOTUS] over the peaceful sideline protests of Kaepernick and other players against police brutality. It’s a worldview that grants Black people the right to work and entertain, to ‘shut up and play,’ but not to be full human beings or coequal members of the populace. It is not a stretch to say that this attitude is a bedrock of American racism.”

After George Floyd

The dynamics changed when the Bucks and the other NBA teams stopped playing. What they did was “several orders of magnitude greater than any act of protest we have seen in major American team sports. With the simple act of refusing to work under present conditions, they brought an entire lucrative industry to a halt and have undoubtedly brought terror to some of the country’s powerful people.

“The NBA is a league run by billionaires, in a country in which billionaires wield obscene amounts of political influence. ‘But what do the players actually want?’ people will ask, many of whom not remotely interested in the answer to that question. Well, for starters, they want more power in shaping the conditions of the country they live in. And now they unquestionably have that.

“The fact that it was the Milwaukee Bucks who took this stand is crucial in several respects. The Bucks play in the same state where Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times. In the wake of their decision, the Bucks soon found themselves on a conference call with both the attorney general and lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.

“But the Bucks also have the best record in the NBA and are one of the two or three teams considered most likely to win this year’s bubble championship… If the Bucks refuse to play… the general premise of this entire NBA playoffs is instantly invalidated.”

Power

“The bubble has thus far been a smashing success. The level of play has been terrific, the television presentation has deftly mitigated the absence of fans, and, most importantly, there have been no virus outbreaks…” For an extraordinary two days, “all of this was put in jeopardy, because the league’s players, a group of people to whom sports are more important than literally anyone else in America, collectively declared to all Americans that certain things are far more important than sports.”

Sports analyst Jared Kushner tweeted: “What I’d love to see from the players in the NBA–again they have the luxury of taking a night off from work, most Americans don’t…I’d like to see them start moving into concrete solutions that are productive.”

From the First SIL’s lips. “Players needed something. Owners were in a position to give it to them. The asks were reasonable. They wanted a bigger voice internally. The NBA agreed to establish a social justice coalition, one represented by players, coaches, and owners.” It will “tackle a broad range of issues, from civic engagement [including voting initiatives] to advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”

Still, I continue to be pained by the poignant statement of Doc Rivers, the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. “It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”

Being a well-paid black athlete in America doesn’t prevent one from becoming a dead black person in America. Two-thirds of players in the NFL are large (scary!) black men. About three-quarters of NBA players are tall (scary!) black men. They are not immune to what has happened to, among many others, Stephon Clark or Philando Castile.

Movie review: I, Tonya [as in Harding]

We thought that Margot Robbie captured the essence of Tonya Harding,

Some movies are more difficult to review than others, and I, Tonya is one of them. On one hand, it is a humorous film, making good use of the of the fourth wall to tell a story, or stories – it embraces its differing points of view – about what is referred to as The Incident, the injuring of skater Nancy Kerrigan by people around Tonya Harding.

On the other hand, it’s a lot about the abuse Tonya (Oscar-nominee Margo Robbie) withstands, first at the hands of her never satisfied mother LaVona Fay Golden (probable Oscar winner Alison Janney), then by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in their odd love/hate relationship.

As someone who watched a LOT more figure skating in the day than he really cared about, I know it was also about how the girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in Portland, OR never having the right “look”. Her skating was athletic – she was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition – but she lacked the grace, the elan that the skating community wanted to show.

I asked my local expert, my wife, what she thought of Robbie’s portrayal of Harding. She thought, and I concurred, that she captured the essence of Tonya, though she wasn’t as sinewy as the skater. We agreed, though, that the folks playing Tonya’s mom and husband, and especially Gilhooey’s lunkhead friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), were spot on.

I continue to be amused by the fact that some people get up from the theater as soon as the credits begin rolling, even when those credits are paired with clips of the real people – Tonya, Jeff, LaVona, Shawn. Shawn really DID think he was a world-class international spy.

I liked the film because Tonya eventually overcame what was essentially a rigged system to become one of the best skaters in the world. She was turned into a national joke – the film Tonya points to a real David Letterman Top Ten – because of a ridiculous and ineptly executed plan not of her design. She was banned from participating in the only thing to do what she knew how to do, yet she survived.

I, Tonya speaks of the curse of celebrity, with the swarm of reporters camped outside her door for a time. A television infotainment reporter (Bobby Cannavale) admits how the medium sensationalized that narrative until the Next Big Thing came along.

And, as noted, I did love the storytelling device of the film. Tonya talks about all the specific difficult things she went through to train for the 1994 Olympics, and her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) looks into the camera and says, “And she did!” I laughed aloud through much of the dark comedy.

My wife, who wanted to see the film more than I, enjoyed it less, because of all that Tonya went through, starting at age of four. Of course, we saw this at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany.

February rambling #1: Bowling Green Massacre

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Different take on the news

I need to get a different take on the news for a while.

You start writing a blog post, and sometimes, at some point, it just loses its joy.

Yeah, I was going to write about the lying Ryan Lochte and the other Olympic swimmers, and how he particularly was the Ugly American abroad. And Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada downplaying their actions may be a case of white male privilege Continue reading “Different take on the news”