On Monday, 39 white men, mostly good ol’ racin’ boys with solid Southern roots, pushed a Black man’s car to the front of the starting line at a NASCAR race. Racing royalty throughout the sport rallied around the only African American on the circuit. Because, on Sunday, NASCAR discovered a noose hanging in Bubba Wallace’s garage stall.
To those good ol’ boys, today, that imagery was horrific. To those good ol’ boys, today, Wallace’s Black life mattered.
Times, they are a-changin'.
For the past four years people uncomfortable with phrases like “white privilege” and “social justice” told us writers to “stick to sports.” They told the players to “shut up and dribble.” They seemed self-righteous then. They seem juvenile now.
Black lives mattered four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. Black lives matter to more people today. Depending on which poll you cite, the movement, steadily fueled by the stars of sports, is seen favorably by about 60% of all Americans, double its approval rate in 2016. #BlackLivesMatter is rising. BLM is here to stay.
The rising is bad news for any people who took delight in the presence of a noose in Talladega, Ala., before the race got rained out Sunday. The FBI investigated the matter and determined Monday that the rope in question acts as a pull-down rope for the garage determined that the rope had been fashioned into a noose at least as distant as October, the last time NASCAR visited Talladega.
NASCAR told The Boston Globe on Tuesday that no other pull-ropes in the garage were fashioned into nooses, Both NASCAR and the FBI believe it was pure coincidence that the only Black driver on the happened to be assigned that particular stall. NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Tuesday that the circuit will continue its investigation into why a pull-rope was ever fashioned into a noose in the first place.
So, while the FBI has closed its investigation of a possible hate crime, we are left with remarkable images of love and support.
The other drivers pushed Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet to the front of the field before the start of the Geico 500. After he heard about the noose incident, team owner Richard Petty, whose 200 career wins nearly laps the field, flew into Talladega to support his driver. Retired legacy driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular stock car racer in history, tweeted his love for Bubba, and NASCAR workers painted “#IStandWithBubbaWallace” on the infield grass. Wallace briefly exited his car in tears.
The noose incident happened in a likely place. Bubba shares a last name with former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the poster boy for bigotry in the 1960s and ‘70s. The closest city to Talladega is Birmingham, a center of protest and brutality during the civil rights movement. A new movement is rolling fast.
The rise of Black Lives Matter is bad news for the handful of hateful, not-so-good ol’ boys and girls who brought Confederate flags to the speedway’s parking lot after NASCAR banned the banners. One “jackass” — circuit executive Steve O’Donnell’s descriptor, not mine (OK, mine too) — flew a rebel banner behind a plane over the speedway Sunday.
Sunday night, Russell Wilson, along with power couple Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, opened the ESPYs by paying tribute to athlete-activists Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Serena Williams. These Black stars risked their careers, and some risked their lives, campaigning to create a world in which George Floyd and Eric Garner would never have had to plead “I can’t breathe” as police officers suffocated them. On video.
“Our country’s work is not anywhere close to done,” Wilson said. “We need a change. And we need it now.”
Wilson is a Black NFL quarterback, so his mere presence as an NFL star is a measure of progress for anyone over the age of 30. He is also the best quarterback in the NFL — unless you believe that to be 2018 MVP and current Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes; or Lamar Jackson, the current MVP. They both also are Black. So is Cam Newton, the quarterback who won the MVP in 2015.
Times, they are a-changin'.
And, so, no, BLM won’t fade away. It will keep crashing at your doorstep, wave after wave, flooding your social media, commanding your attention, demanding real change.
BLM began its charge through sports when, after a rash of police shootings of black men, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James opened the 2016 ESPYs with a somber declaration of their intent to pursue social change. The movement found its unlikely figurehead when Kaepernick first sat, then knelt, through the national anthems before the 49ers’ 2016 preseason and regular-season games.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins quickly joined Kaepernick. Within a calendar year, as the NFL blackballed Kaepernick, Jenkins became the movement’s chief leader. He cofounded of the Players Coalition in 2017. Last week, CNN hired him as a paid contributor. His production company produced this year’s ESPYs opening, coming full circle, since Jenkins says the opening of the 2016 ESPYs spurred him to action. He said in a video message Sunday that, “Unfortunately, only a fraction of us answered that call.”
Athletes of all ages and hues are answering the call now.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who is white, says he will kneel during the anthem this season, and doesn’t care if he loses “fans.”
Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Saints quarterback Drew Brees, veteran white superstars, now both decry the notion that kneeling disrespects the American flag or the song.
Brees even challenged President Donald Trump, who once said any NFL player who didn’t stand for the national anthem is a “son of a bitch.”
Of course, Brees — who now is Jenkins’s teammate — took a bit of convincing. We all learn at our own pace.
Brees one day will join deep Southerner Brett Favre in the Hall of Fame. Favre, who is white, on Sunday asserted that Kaepernick one day will be considered a hero of the caliber of Pat Tillman, who quit the NFL after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to join the Army Rangers, then died in Afghanistan.
Favre is from Gulfport, Miss., and he’s on the same page as his hometown and another of his state’s favorite sons.
Last week, Gulfport city officials voted to take down the state flag, which incorporates a design of the Confederate battle flag. Also last week, Mississippi NASCAR driver Tommy Joe Martins finally removed his home state’s flag from his No. 44 Chevrolet.
“There’s so many other things that can represent our Southern pride and heritage than that Confederate flag,” Martins said in an Instagram post. “We gotta step away from it. I don’t want the first impression of me to be something associated with the KKK.”
Too late, Tommy. To be clear: Martins came around, but he came around because NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.
Wait. Wrong volume.
NASCAR BANNED THE CONFEDERATE FLAG.
That’s like Kentucky Fried Chicken banning cholesterol.
Thank Bubba Wallace. He led the movement to outlaw the traitorous standard at his workplace. He even used a Black Lives Matters paint scheme when he raced at Martinsville, Va., on June 10 and wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before the race.
NASCAR was completely on board. NASCAR, folks. Before Martinsville, more than a dozen racing stars joined Wallace and compiled a 90-second clip pledging to work toward change, both today and tomorrow.
Then, the noose, and the prerace “rally” Monday. Wallace shrugged off both. He knew his Black life mattered more than the symbols of a dead and wicked era.
These athletes will not shut up and dribble.
They will not stick to sports.