LOS ANGELES – It was last summer that pro athletes raised their voices in unison to protest the death of Black men at the hands of police, their protest temporarily shutting down sports across the country.
So it makes sense that Tuesday, after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd, athletes spoke up again in tones that ranged from joyous to guarded.
“ACCOUNTABILITY,” LeBron James tweeted.
Magic Johnson was more effusive: “Thank God … guilty! Justice has been served!”
A little closer to the situation, the Minnesota Timberwolves and their WNBA colleagues, the Lynx, posted a statement: “We are hopeful that today’s decision will serve as a step forward, but it does not ease the physical and emotional pain that continues in an environment where systemic racism exists.”
The intersection of sports and social justice dates at least as far back as Jackie Robinson shattering baseball’s color barrier in 1947. The 1960s were marked by Muhammad Ali’s refusal to go to Vietnam and a protest from sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists on an Olympic podium.
More recently, Colin Kaepernick added fuel to a national debate when he took a knee during the national anthem.
In the summer of 2020, after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to sit out an NBA playoff game, triggering walkouts that spread quickly to baseball, soccer, hockey and tennis.
At the time, James said: “I know people are getting tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.”
Mookie Betts led the way for the Dodgers, deciding to sit out a game in San Francisco. His teammates quickly joined him, with Clayton Kershaw talking about “standing up for what we believe is right.”
The WNBA had played a particularly notable role dating back to 2016 when players drew league fines for wearing “Black Lives Matter” shirts during warmups.
Over the past few days, as the Chauvin trial concluded and the jury began to deliberate, the feeling of anxiety that seemed to grip much of the nation was just as evident in the sports world.
“The events of this past year have shown just how toxic and prevalent systemic and individual racism are to our community,” the owners of the Minnesota Twins posted Tuesday. “We understand more deeply than ever the need to listen, learn and empathize in order to find ways to move forward together to build a more just community for all.”
James was more succinct, quoting the author James Baldwin when he tweeted: “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Moments after the verdict was announced in a Minneapolis courtroom, teammate Markieff Morris posted a series of praying hands and former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller extolled “ACCOUNTABILITY.”
Some responses were measured, even after the jury convicted Chauvin of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said, “Love wins.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother Japanese, tweeted this: “I was going to make a celebratory tweet but then I was hit with sadness because we are celebrating something that is clear as day. The fact that so many injustices occurred to make us hold our breath toward this outcome is really telling.”
Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins seemed hopeful in typing out: “Progress.” Chargers receiver Joe Reed adopted an angrier tone: “Throw the key away.”
Local teams reacted with a familiar message, the Dodgers and Sparks calling for continued support of social justice. Leagues such as the NHL and MLS sounded a similar note, the NBA vowing to keep working through the Social Justice Coalition that was formed in conjunction with the players union.
“It’s never a time to celebrate when someone is killed,” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters. “Maybe this will help us heal and we’ll cease with the violence.”
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