Silent spring: US sports leagues’ disengagement with Black Lives Matter is shameful, disappointing

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This spring certainly hasn’t been like those before.

Crowded arenas and stadiums are now things of the past. The roar of the crowd when a home run ball rips through the air, a basketball glides through the net against all odds or a soccer ball meets the back of the goal is nothing but a memory we all cling to.

The silence from places in which we used to commune and gather to support a common love is haunting. In fact, crowd noise has proved so completing to sports that leagues in countries that have cautiously resumed, such as the Korea Baseball Organization and Germany’s Bundesliga, have been piping prerecorded crowd clamor into their stadiums or broadcasts during matchups to provide some sense of normalcy.

But most sports leagues remain silent, and not because of the pandemic. Sparked by the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, protests have erupted around the United States as a nation too long plagued with racism and violence has reached its tipping point. While cries from furious, heartbroken citizens who have protested police brutality, inequality and systemic exclusion too many times meet a sky licked with the flames of a burning country, there is something deeply unsettling about the utter lack of noise from sports — and not the kind from stadiums.

While people take to the streets to voice their anger day after day, sports have remained silent. Individual players such as Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Josh Okogie, Sydney Leroux Dwyer and countless others have shared their frustration and anguish at seeing yet another Black person wrongfully killed, but official statements from teams and leagues decrying the acts of violence that provoked the protests and continue to erupt even at peaceful ones are few and far between.

While more than half of the NBA and NHL teams have released official statements on their Twitter accounts regarding the protests, the NFL and MLB appear to be struggling to find the words.

The MLB did not issue an official statement until Wednesday of this week, and many of the teams that have spoken out and shown either support for the protests or denounced racism have offered weak statements at best, filling their messages to the Black community full of platitudes and promises to “do better,” with no clear elucidations on how they will. While this is certainly better than remaining voiceless in a time when teams should be using their massive followings to make deliberate, poignant statements, some might as well have said nothing at all.

If the Cleveland Indians — let me repeat — the Cleveland Indians can make a thoughtful statement about how they will work to be anti-racist, the MLB needs to do the same. If the Washington Redskins (yes, them!) and the San Francisco 49ers, of all teams, can find it in their hypocritical hearts to post for #BlackoutTuesday, the NFL should be able to stand in solidarity with the Black community and find the funds to back it up.

Why is it so hard for these leagues to wholeheartedly support movements that serve to better the lives of the very players they are composed of? Why is committing to anti-racist policy even debated when the vast majority of players in the NBA and NFL are Black? Why haven’t leagues already committed to anti-racist policies?

It’s because this country is built to be that way. In 2017, almost 80% of the NBA was made up of Black athletes, but about 90% of the CEOs and presidents were white. The NFL, similarly, had 100% white CEOS and presidents, while about 70% of players in the league were Black. And that doesn’t even come close to painting the whole picture.

While the United States’ professional sports leagues have all at least made official statements, simply speaking out is only the first step. The National Basketball Coaches Association has already swiftly instituted a committee on racial injustice, and the NBA’s Reddit page was shut down for 24 hours to support Black Lives Matter, so other leagues should be following suit. These organizations are some of the most influential institutions in our country. Don’t believe me? Ask Colin Kaepernick why he opted out of his contract — and why the president was so mad about his kneeling, or why people were cutting Nike logos off their socks. People pay attention to how these leagues act.

How could it possibly be so hard to condemn violence that fellow human beings are experiencing? How could it be so difficult for leagues or teams to fully commit to supporting social change that only stand to benefit and protect their players?

When you have the privilege to throw down the gauntlet and make a difference, it is a violent act not to do so. Teams that choose not to stand up for the Black community are siding against it. Sports leagues must be better to the BLM movement — it is their duty to protect, stand up for and elevate the Black community that they profit so much from.

The reservation of teams to speak up when the nation needs their voices and platforms most is disheartening.

The noise of a country in disarray is loud, but the silence of sports is deafening.

Emily Ohman is the sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @emilyohman34.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article implied that the NBA manages its own Reddit page. In fact, fans operate the page.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that in 2017, 100% of NFL owners were white. In fact, 100% of NFL CEOs and presidents were white.