When a Minnesota jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts he faced in the murder of George Floyd on April 20, the visceral reactions of relief, grief and continued frustration compounded in very specific ways in the sports world.
Athletes, teams, and leagues all posted on social media platforms, and it felt like a collective sense of reflection was happening.
The trauma experienced by Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities did not start on May 25, 2020 – the day that Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes and killed him. The reality is that systems of oppression rooted in white supremacy are so embedded in society that it can be difficult and overwhelming to understand where and how to dismantle them.
Many people, including athletes, have committed to relearning as we begin to uncover how much of history has been systemically whitewashed to exclude the details of how Black, Indigenous and racialized communities have been brutalized. This extends to the ways in which we engage in honest discussions about race, power, and action.
Floyd’s death was captured on camera by teenager Darnella Frazier, then 17. Without her, the guilty verdict may not have been reached. The video evidence was undoubtedly horrific but clear; we must be honest about this. It is not that society suddenly shifted and the scale of Lady Justice now weighs heavily on the side of equity-seeking groups.
The fact of the matter is that the evidence was irrefutable, and although the defence attempted to argue that Floyd was allegedly committing a crime (he was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill), the actions of Chauvin and the other officers who did not intervene and were complicit, led to him being found guilty.
We know that crimes against racialized communities have been occurring since time immemorial. The discussions now being had in sports and sports media are relatively new.
Until recently, the Football Association, the governing body of association soccer in England fined players for any type of social justice or advocacy messaging while on the pitch. That changed after the global outcry following Floyd’s death.
We saw professional teams in Europe kneeling before matches – a popular form of protest against police brutality and the targeting of Black people after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, first took a knee during the national anthem in the 2016 preseason.
There are many roads in athlete activism. Historically, Kaepernick was not the first to protest racial oppression, colonialism, and imperialism in sports. Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe have all navigated as athlete activists in different ways.
And, as we know, the WNBA curated a clear blueprint for social justice advocacy. They have been advocating for racial justice and other issues of utmost importance for years. They were the first league to create a social justice council, less than two months after Floyd's death.
But was the murder of Floyd the catalyst for increased mobilization of athletes? I asked Dr. Nicole Neverson, associate professor of sociology at Ryerson University, about what that horrific event did and the ways in which sports have been impacted.
“When we think about George Floyd’s death, Black and other racialized athletes were not only some of the first prominent folks voicing their outrage and sorrow,” Dr. Neverson said via email. “They were doing so from the point of view of people with lived experiences of systemic racism, police brutality and grievances long ignored.”
One of the most devastating aspects to witness are the ways Black athletes articulate that this crisis against Black communities at the hands of police brutality is terrifying because neither wealth nor status protects them from racial profiling or police violence.
ESPN’s film 144 documented the happening of the 2020 bubble season in the WNBA. Minnesota Lynx and Canadian national team player Natalie Achonwa says on camera that the death of Breonna Taylor reminded her it could have been her.
“So many Black athletes understood that Floyd’s death was, on the one hand, another painful reminder of what happens to Black people when the police are involved,” Dr. Neverson said.
“On the other hand, it was their chance to say something loud and clear to fans, advertisers, team owners, sports organizations, etc., about what racism is, what it does, and how it kills. We can see how Floyd’s death has been more than just a catalyst for athletes mobilizing against systemic racism and police brutality because so many of them are even more unwavering in the political work that they were engaged in off the field before his death (like WNBA players and their role in the Say Her Name movement and efforts to block and oust regressive Republican politicians from the election in 2020).”
It is undeniable that we have seen more athletes use their platforms to speak publicly about combating racism in sports and in society in the year since Floyd’s death. Athletes have taken leadership roles in the community through organizing: vaccine sign-ups, and calls for civic engagement, including voting in the recent U.S. presidential elections.
There are definitely sports organizations and teams that are still reluctant to be involved in active and actionable steps around fighting oppression. But the reality is that the dial is turning. Fans are responding and following the lead of the athletes, like Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild, who was the first NHL player to kneel during an anthem.
There are groups, including the Black Girl Hockey Club, that seek to amplify educational campaigns while engaging hockey fans. (Full disclosure: I am on the advisory board of the Black Girl Hockey Club.)
While Floyd’s death may have been a call to some, it was also a painful reminder to others of the work that still needs to be done. There are moments of joy and a hopeful sense that accountability can exist in the legal system, but will justice ever be given?
Accountability is different than justice. Justice would be that no other Black person would be treated unjustly, which was not the case when Jacob Blake was shot in the back by officers during a police stop in Kenosha, Wis., on Aug. 23 as his children sat in the backseat.
There can’t be justice without accountability and there can’t be peace without justice. We can’t expect athletes to turn off their feelings and despair as the world continues to function in a way that is harmful to their communities.
Are non-racialized athletes kneeling, donating, and speaking up? Is the sports media still only asking Black and Brown athletes about their reactions? Why are we not asking everyone about how they feel about racist abuse on the pitch, the ice or the court?
After a year when anti-Asian crimes have skyrocketed, attacks on trans youth in sports have mercilessly continued and conflict continues in the Middle East, we must not be selective in our support or our empathy.
It is clear that commissioners, coaches and general managers should be as engaged in the discussions as the players and fans.
Dr. Neverson believes that for some, Floyd’s death will not be seen or accepted as a catalyst for social justice mobilization because the leadership needs to connect the dots of systemic oppression and the sport’s vital role in addressing it. This is a stark reminder that the person sitting at the decision-making table is not who is on the court or in the stands.
As we move forward, we should take a minute to hold joy where we can and reflect on any progress. Carrying the mantle of anti-oppression work is the responsibility of not one person but of all of us. The tragic events of May 25, 2020 remind us that not only does collective liberation require the actions of many, but it is also dependent on our commitment.