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George Floyd, sports activism, and the vote: Two steps forward ... | Marcus Hayes

Do Black Lives Matter more after a year of concerted effort by athletes to move the social justice needle?

A pedestrian passing murals to honor George Floyd and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick covering pieces of plywood used to shield windows in an empty storefront south of the State Capitol in Denver, Colo., last June.
A pedestrian passing murals to honor George Floyd and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick covering pieces of plywood used to shield windows in an empty storefront south of the State Capitol in Denver, Colo., last June.Read moreDavid Zalubowski / AP

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. My assignment: Write my observations concerning how the world has changed in 365 days since the most infamous law-enforcement murder of a Black man in my lifetime.

Are we, as Black Americans, safer? There’s a Democrat in the White House, our first Black, Asian American, and woman vice president, and Congress is controlled by the Democratic party ... but no. Hatred still abounds. And far-right voices still resound. It is who we are.

I never watched the 9 minutes, 29 seconds of slow, intentional homicide recorded on video. I couldn’t. However, plenty of Americans enjoyed watching the murder. Some were cops. You don’t want to hear that, but it’s true, and that’s what sickens me, and that’s why we weren’t much safer on May 25, 2021, than we were on May 25, 2020.

» READ MORE: Sixers’ Danny Green says anniversary of George Floyd’s murder is a reminder to refocus on making a change

It takes more than LeBron James wearing a George Floyd T-shirt in the NBA bubble in August. It takes more than NFL teams painting anti-racism messages in their end zones. These are important, and they have rolled the stone up the hill, but messages don’t matter unless laws exist to protect the most vulnerable. So, vote.

That’s what mattered. That’s what happened. The NBA’s impromptu strike that paused the playoffs and spread to other sports spurred an industry-wide movement that turned about 70 arenas and stadiums into polling places and turned superstars into voting rights advocates. James’ T-shirt in August read 8:46, the amount of time Chauvin’s knee was believed to be pressed on Floyd’s neck, but the shooting shirt he and other players wore at the end of the NBA playoffs in September and October carried a stronger message: VOTE.

Eagles safety Rodney McLeod spent his bye week getting out the vote in Philadelphia. Tobias Harris was the Sixers’ steady voice, on the streets and on TV.

It worked. It continues to work; James in June founded “More Than a Vote,” a nationwide initiative that made voting easier and now works to fight voter suppression. He says in an ad that dropped in March: “Look what we did. ... They saw what we’re a capable of, and they fear it. ... This isn’t time to put your feet up.”

That’s the entire point. What has happened since May 25, 2020 must be the beginning of a change, not just a moment in history, or the oppression will return; hundreds of voter suppression bills have already been introduced this year, and, as James mentioned, they will continue.

Just ask Kaep.

Kaepernick was right. So is Jenkins.

There exists and has always existed a culture of violent bigotry and racism aimed at Black men in America; this was the crux of Colin Kaepernick’s heroic stance while he was the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. That bigotry manifests itself in racial profiling, vastly higher arrest and conviction rates, and, worst, a political and economic system that incentivizes incarceration of minorities — especially Black men — for profit. This is the crux of former Eagles captain Malcolm Jenkins’ crusade.

When making these provable, obvious assertions, Kaepernick and Jenkins — and I, along with legions of others (LeBron, Gregg Popovich, Megan Rapinoe, the Atlanta Dream) — are, absurdly, accused of being anti-police, anti-American, and racist. The reality, of course, is that dismissing these assertions is, plainly, being anti-police (there are lots of good cops), anti-American (freedom, duh), and, of course, blatantly racist.

Finally, if you believe that the form of Kaepernick’s protest — kneeling during the national anthem — was one-millionth as significant as the object of Kaepernick’s protest, then you are 1,000% of the problem.

Allies emerged

Outrage from Floyd’s death coalesced into a courage that led millions to protest during a pandemic, risking their lives to both disease and violent policing tactics. The protests were a visceral response spurred by the videotaped murder, and an awakening to a phenomenon that has been part of Black life in America for four centuries.

The murder shined a brighter light on the reality that Black folks in America face higher barriers in every spectrum: education, health care, politics, entertainment, and, of course, interactions with agents of law enforcement who swear to protect the safety of all, not just the rich, or the white. It shined a brighter light on the reality that simply being Black is a life-threatening condition in the United States. Any hope for real change lies in recognition of these facts and in sympathy for this plight from younger, white Americans.

This classification of “white” might be overly broad, but that, too, is an uncomfortable reality. At any rate, the continuation of what happened in the streets last summer and what happened at the polls in November relies on vigilant protection of voting rights and accurate depiction of America’s racist and oppressive history.

Two steps forward ...

For every step forward, we are reminded that there will be a horse dragging us 10 steps backward. Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and there are politicians who seek to ban the teaching of such crucial elements in our development as a nation, including the governor of Oklahoma, the state in which Tulsa is situated.

We now have ever-more emboldened bigoted legislators, sports stars who endorse racists, coaches who feign ignorance of the issues, and genuinely obtuse, sheltered millionaire jocks who can tell you every move the Kardashians make but don’t know who Breonna Taylor or Jacob Blake are.

We now have the Washington Football Team in the NFL, but the Braves not only won’t criticize an oppressive voting rights bill passed in their state this year, but they actually criticized Major League Baseball for pulling the All-Star Game out of Georgia in reaction to it.

Of course, the Braves still encourage fans to do the “Tomahawk Chop” and chant.


Since Kaepernick’s protest began in the summer of 2016, I’ve had the same tired, willfully obtuse conversations with too many of my peers to count. The “Why don’t they just comply?” conversation (noncompliance isn’t a death warrant); the “White nationalism isn’t the same as white supremacy!” conversation (it is the same); the “Yes, Redskins is a racist term” conversation (I mean, seriously); and the “Why should ‘Black Lives Matter’ be a thing?!” conversation (Black lives shouldn’t matter more than other lives; they should matter as much as other lives).

Most of these peers do not care to educate themselves. That’s their prerogative. I don’t have that luxury.

Did some good come from this horror? Perhaps. The murder and its fallout, combined with the disproportionate impact on Black-owned businesses by the coronavirus pandemic, sent a stream of money and awareness toward Black-owned businesses; the 76ers have, typically, been commendable in this area.

» READ MORE: Teen ‘Diddy’ protege works himself to exhaustion: Behind the Sixers’ groundbreaking ‘Buy Black’ program | Marcus Hayes

The murder heightened sensitivity regarding discriminatory hiring practices and sensitivity toward workplace environments that are systemically hostile toward minority employees, no matter how unintentional. We witnessed that here at The Inquirer. No place, and nobody, is perfect.

But progress? Real progress? Maybe. But progress is never permanent.

For instance, in the past few weeks Republicans in 34 states have introduced bills to limit the rights of protesters and to punish them more harshly. These bills aren’t necessary. They’re just another weapon aimed at quieting the voices who screamed for justice for George Floyd at demonstrations that were overwhelmingly peaceful.

Because this sort of justice — social justice — does not serve their ends.

Two steps forward ...