A year has passed since former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. “Murder” here isn’t a word choice but a matter of legal fact. Last month Chauvin was convicted of several charges, including second-degree murder, for killing George, a 46-year-old father, and unarmed Black man.
Chauvin knelt on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, knowing Floyd could die under his weight, but not thinking he’d endure any consequences for suffocating him. Video of the killing shows Chauvin using his knee to squeeze Floyd’s airway, numb to bystanders’ pleas for mercy, and smirking with the self-assurance of a man who figured the criminal justice system would back him. Before encountering Floyd, Chauvin had racked up 17 use of force complaints over a 20-year career, yet remained employed.
The clip rippled quickly through the internet, and didn’t just rattle American society along its foundational fault lines of race and power. It spurred worldwide protests even as we grappled with the coronavirus pandemic, prompted corporations from Exxon to Pepsi to speak out in solidarity, and forced a long list of industries — media, advertising, pro sports and more — to reflect on how built-in racism has shaped them.
By mid-summer, the NHL, the NBA, and even Rugby Super League in England, had integrated phrases like “End Racism” and “Black Lives Matter,” into the on-field product. Washington D.C.’s NFL team discontinued its racist nickname and logo, and hired the first African-American president in club history. The CFL’s Edmonton team announced it would change its racist nickname, and by December, Cleveland’s MLB team had announced it would drop the “Indians” nickname for the 2022 season.
After quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during pregame anthems to protest racist police brutality, and essentially lost his career for it, the NHL handed Matt Dumba a microphone for a pregame speech denouncing systemic racism. If watching protests against racism morph from taboo to league-sponsored fits your vision of progress, then the summer for 2020, when for-profit sports embraced anti-racist rhetoric represented a giant step forward.
World had to watch
Let’s ignore the fact that the whole world had to watch a white cop murder an unarmed, handcuffed Black man on camera, and then watch protests erupt in major cities worldwide, before most sports leagues felt safe denouncing racism in public. The NFL’s first post-Kaepernick attempt to address racism, remember, ended with them hiring Jay-Z, and promoting the lukewarm, race-neutral slogan, “Inspire Change.”
A full year has passed since Floyd’s death turned big-time sports leagues into anti-racism advocates, so now what?
So many milestones achieved since last spring look like turning points on the sport’s industry’s twisting path to racial justice, but when racial barriers fall, racist backlash follows. Almost always. And 12 months after George Floyd, we can still see sports industry power brokers grappling with how much anti-racism is too much, and clinging to business models that exploit Black labour.
We can’t deny the tangible impact of post-George Floyd athlete-activism, and we shouldn’t want to. We should celebrate the example of what’s possible when young, informed, empowered people pool their strength to improve other people’s lives.
Last August members of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream actively campaigned against team co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican senator from Georgia seeking election on a pro-Donald Trump, anti-Black Lives Matter platform. Team members pressured her to divest — Loeffler sold her stake in February — and promoted her opponent, Benjamin Warnock, who eventually won the Senate seat.
Protest after shooting of Jacob Blake
Later that month the Milwaukee Bucks reacted to the shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wis. police officer by refusing to play that night against Orlando. Milwaukee’s wildcat strike soon spread across the rest of the NBA, and all of pro sports, and NBA players agreed to return to work only after teams pledged to turn arenas into COVID-safe voting sites for November’s elections. That effort helped contribute to record turnout when a pandemic threatened to keep voters at home, and provided another high-profile example of a mostly Black group of athletes leveraging their fame in the service of racial justice and democracy.
In a healthy political environment, that kind of activism would earn praise from elected officials from all parties. High turnout likely signifies an engaged, politically literate electorate, and winners will know their proposals appealed to a broad cross-section of citizens. Yet the 2020 elections, which featured both high turnout and, according to the former U.S. head of cyber security, tight defence against attempted interference, prompted Republican lawmakers in a series of states to crack down on access to the ballot box.
Proposed new laws from Texas Republicans aim to restrict early voting, close polling places earlier on election day, and place fewer polls in urban areas, where Democratic candidates tend to thrive. Corporations have signalled their disagreement with the new rules.
And in Georgia, a 98-page law contains a series of provisions, including limiting drop-boxes in Atlanta, which would disproportionately affect Black residents’ access to the vote.
Democracy worked as designed
Major League Baseball responded to Georgia’s new laws by moving its All-Star Game, scheduled for July 13 in Atlanta, to Denver. Republican lawmakers like Calgary-born Ted Cruz reacted by threatening to revoke the league’s anti-trust exemption.
All these moves and counter-moves, remember, because, in the autumn following the Summer of George Floyd, democracy worked as designed, and pro athletes pitched in to help it function. Voters turned out, and in Georgia they chose Warnock for Senate and Joe Biden for president. Instead of congratulating winners on well-run campaigns, and regrouping for next year’s midterms, Republican elected officials have instead chosen to amplify the ex-president’s lie about actually winning the election, and to fall back on racism at the ballot box and on the playing field.
Georgia’s legislature also passed a law that would allow college athletes in the state to monetize their fame via sponsorship deals, but on the condition that they forfeit 75 per cent of their endorsement income to their universities, which would then redistribute that money to athletes in other sports. The racial ramifications of this new law are hiding in plain sight. If football and men’s basketball teams, where a majority of players are black, enjoy the highest profile, those athletes figure to win the biggest endorsement deals.
Forcing them to give their sponsorship money to athletes in other sports, with proportionately fewer Black athletes, isn’t just taxation. It’s a race-based wealth transfer. It’s theft. It’s a clear message from Republican lawmakers to talented Black athletes that they deserve to get paid — but only a fraction of their worth, and only after they’ve paid off some white people first.
That Georgia’s legislature is using sports as a vehicle for a racist law tells you how deep anti-Blackness still runs in big-time athletics, and how much progress still hasn’t been made, even a year after George Floyd.