Statements versus substance

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For the past three weeks, the city of Minneapolis and people across the world have eagerly watched the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who murdered George Floyd last May.

Casual passersby, a Cup Foods cashier, a nearby firefighter, Floyd’s girlfriend and Floyd’s brother, Philonise, are among those who were called to provide testimony and recount May 25, 2020, the day that Floyd was killed.

For the past three weeks, people across the world have been reminded of the atrocity Chauvin committed and the atrocities that continue to be committed; the trial proceeded as several young people died at the hands of police, and a day after the trial’s verdict, video footage of an East Bay officer fatally shooting an unhoused Black man in March was released.

On Tuesday, after Chauvin was found guilty of second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, people — including members of the sports community —– quickly voiced their thoughts on the conviction. In doing so, these high profile individuals and organizations wove themselves into a story that should conclude with them taking more responsibility and action in their communities.

The Las Vegas Raiders tweeted “I CAN BREATHE 4-20-21” and football Hall of Famer Brett Favre later said that finds it “hard to believe” that Chauvin meant to kill Floyd, both of which fueled backlash.

Favre’s statement came a week after he said that he wanted politics out of sports. The Raiders’ statement came after three weeks were spent reliving and dissecting every part of the interaction between Chauvin and Floyd, an interaction which had left Floyd unable to breathe. A guilty verdict will not bring back Floyd nor any other victim of police violence. Philonese stated that his family was able to “breathe again,” but people have, perhaps rightfully, questioned the underlying messaging behind a football franchise using similar language in a statement of its own.

Furthermore, following the death of Eric Garner in 2014 who told officers “I can’t breathe” 11 times, some New York Police Department officers wore shirts with the phrase, “I CAN BREATHE.” For many, the Raiders’ tweet was a reminder of the perpetrators of violence, rather than those against it.

“It was taken negatively by 99% of the people,” said Raiders owner Mark Davis, who took full ownership of the tweet and said it would not be deleted.

Regardless of Davis’ intent, his tweet nonetheless caused avoidable harm. The remedy would be for the Raiders, and Davis, to voice public support for criminal justice reform bills being discussed in Nevada or at the federal level in Congress. As sports leagues, owners and franchises engage in the conversation about racial injustice, we must urge them to accompany their words with action. We must place our support behind the ones that lead with substance in their statements.

Davis’ tweet was probably well-intentioned, as was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “thanking” of Floyd for his “sacrifice”. But despite Philonise issuing a statement of support for the Raiders, such sentiments miss the mark and remind people of the grave disconnect between the few with power, influence and privilege and the many experiencing tragedy at the hands of police.

46-year-old Floyd was living his life when he was murdered by someone who was responsible for keeping communities safe. His memory and grief may be channeled into necessary change, but we must remember that Floyd did not choose death or “sacrifice.” In a just society, Floyd would be alive today.

When we process events that have captured international attention, we may each do so in different ways. Some may celebrate this week knowing that Chauvin will be one of the few officers to be held accountable for taking someone’s life. Others may grieve the losses that continued to be sustained. Others may organize for real systemic change.

Currently, replies to LeBron James’ tweets about recent police shootings are littered with harsh critiques and accusations of James being a source of hate and division in our society. James, who has founded schools and truly invested in communities, is the type of figure we should support and uplift.

Professional sports are business operations, which have long been intertwined with politics in America. As leagues and franchises now begin to wield their power more publicly to promote social justice, they ought to accompany simple statements with emphatic support for policies and practices that would uplift people in the areas they occupy.

Sports instill a sense of community. People watching a game from their couch and people filling a packed stadium don the same colors and wear similar merchandise. They cheer together and grimace together. Teams thank their fans and their cities; they pride themselves on bringing individuals together to a shared place. Sports franchises are an undeniable part of the fabric of communities, and as such, they must use their resources to better that fabric into which they are woven.

Surina Khurana is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.