Change must run deep

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To say that the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests have affected the world is an understatement. The murder of Black Americans by a racist criminal justice system has resulted in a cry heard around the globe and demonstrations, which rightly demand that we cannot, as a society, tolerate the racist institutions that exist; that we, as a nation, must radically and completely change our institutions and ourselves to fulfill that dream of the United States as a place of liberty, equality and happiness for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or any other oppressed identity.

This imperative has swept through our lives, touching all corners of society. And it is a tide that should continue to rise and force change not just today or tomorrow or next week, but forever.

Sports are a microcosm of this sweeping change. Many individuals and organizations have released statements supporting Black Lives Matter and promising change — the NFL did so after pressure from its many Black players. Many have begun to make those changes — New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees apologized for insensitive statements and NASCAR banned the Confederate flag at its events.

But changes must go far beyond those preliminary efforts. As senior staff writer and columnist Surina Khurana put it, actions speak louder than words. Statements and alterations to fan behavior are good first steps, but more must come.

Sports can be microcosms for social change, but only because they are microcosms of the inequalities that already exist. In the United States, sports are an institution largely maintained by people of color. According to 2016 data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, people of color made up 67% of the total population of professional players in the MLB, NFL and NBA collectively.

Why, then, were the majority and controlling owners of franchises in those leagues 96% white in 2016? That year, the NFL had 1,573 African American players, nearly 70% of all players. You could count the number of African American coaches from the same year on one hand. Those are patterns that extend into front offices and boardrooms of overwhelmingly white CEOs, presidents and general managers. The decision makers — those who decide drafts, sign free agents, trade contracts and blackball quarterbacks in diverse player populations — are predominantly white.

American sports are a microcosm of American inequality because they are an institution built by and maintained by the labor, efforts and play of people of color, but owned, led and dictated by white owners and leadership.

Change must come to American sports so that leadership positions better reflect the players who create those sports. That change must be complete and thorough, as it should be with our police and justice systems and in private and public spheres. Clubs and leagues must not merely alter their personnel. It is not enough to simply hire a Black coach or general manager, stand back, give some applause for token diversification and call it a day. Not that such hirings  are always trivial — equitable hiring and diversification must take place, but that can only be the beginning.

The lack of diversity is systemic. It is enshrined in the system of private ownership, which is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of wealthy, white businessmen who are given unilateral decision-making powers. The personnel, advisers and leaders who are hired will inevitably reflect the class of individuals who are hiring them.

When an organization operates at the behest of a single individual, it is subject to the interest of that individual. Owners are empowered to pursue their own self-interest in the sport they allegedly lead. Witness the current strife between the MLB Players Association and the owners: Faced with financial losses, the owners have refused to let players return to the field unless they take a pay cut.

Whether chasing monetary gain or simply maintaining a particular perspective, owners put their interests and views first because they can, because sports teams in the United States are largely run like businesses and therefore operate according to what the owner considers financially or morally profitable. But those interests can be grossly detrimental to sports and the society in which they take place.

It’s been four years since Colin Kaepernick was blackballed by the NFL, as owners refused to give him a contract because of his protests. Kaepernick spoke out against police brutality and racism, and the league failed to listen — a concerted step against racial equality, which allegedly came from the NFL’s leadership.

Such instances are unacceptable. The NFL admitted as much when commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement, joining millions of Americans in stating that Black lives matter. Players, teams and organizations in different competitions and places have made themselves heard in the condemnation of racism. But, again, those statements are not enough. To ensure that clubs and leagues better reflect the players who are the reason for their existence, change must occur at an institutional level so that sports are bettered not just today or tomorrow or next week, but forever.

The decision-making process must change. Teams can no longer be organized along their current power structures because those power structures inevitably reflect the interests of those with power, who, in many cases, are not the players whose blood, sweat and effort make the sports we know and love. Players must take a greater role in managing teams — they must have power that checks, if not supersedes, that of an owner.

Owners have no real stake in the franchise. They are not players, who give their all for their teams and whose labor creates the sport they own. They are not fans, whose passion makes that sport profitable and relevant. So why are owners the ultimate authority in sports? Why do the commissioners work for them?

If American sports are to reflect the diversity they possess, players must have a larger stake in decision-making. It’s hard to believe that Kaepernick would have been blackballed if every NFL team had a council of players with the ability to sign free agents. Front offices and management would likely diversify and work far better with players if those same players had a say in the hiring process for those positions. Such player input could create a pipeline for moving players from the field to the office, giving them the ability to stay involved and invested in their sport long after their playing days have passed. Any changes at the institutional level — changes that alter the power structure and the very way in which leagues and clubs operate — will be those that can be upheld far into the future.

Increased player power is just one of those potential changes. Ultimately, I am just a white writer, one whose perspective falls far short of understanding what it means to be a Black player — or any other nonwhite or nonheterosexual player — in American sports. This is merely a proposal, a problem observed and an observation, which contains critical errors because of my inherent inability, as a white American, to understand. If you had time to read this, you have time to seek out the perspectives of players such as Kaepernick, Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins, who are seeking change and have knowledge and understanding of the problems they face. You have time to step beyond the world of sports, examine our nation’s institutions, listen to those oppressed by them and create change so that those institutions oppress no longer.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].