The Baltimore Ravens tweeted in support of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake this week. They became the first NFL team to explicitly protest police brutality and call for police reform, addressing the specific issues in which the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting, by Cian Fahey.
Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench exactly four years ago. The then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback chose not to stand for his national anthem. Kaepernick didn't seek out attention. But attention found him. It wasn't until his second week of sitting that the world noticed. He ultimately chose to take a knee instead of sitting in the hopes of highlighting his specific point.
It was a specific point.
Kaepernick was protesting police brutality and the unlawful killing of black people in America. He wasn't protesting the Sound of Music or Little Britain. He wasn't even protesting racism as a whole. Racism is an ambiguous term on its own. Racists hear the word 'racism' and think it's talking about someone else. People with racist views don't reassess their thought processes when someone protests racism, because they don't see their views as racist.
If you're protesting the broad term of racism, you're not protesting anything.
This dilution of the Black Lives Matter movement has made it easy for corporations to appear as allies. Whether it's Sky Sports putting Black Lives Matter in the corner of their screen, the Premier League having players take a knee before games or the NBA putting Black Lives Matter on the court, it's easy now to appear as if you're siding with Black Lives Matter. It's the popular thing to do.
But almost all of these corporations are stopping at the idea of racism and ignoring the actual protest itself. The NBA allowed players to protest by putting phrases on the backs of their jerseys, but they limited the phrases to terms that were acceptable, terms that wouldn't rock the boat too much. They either ignored or didn't see the contradiction in not letting players speak freely as part of a protest.
Martin Tyler has gone as far as to say kneeling is to protest racism everywhere at the start of Premier League games. It's not. It never has been. This movement has never been about protesting racism everywhere. But it's easier for everyone to swallow that way.
Most American corporations are diving face-first into the same PR strategy. So far, two sports franchises have broken through that safety blanket.
First, it was the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team who tweeted their support for Breonna Taylor. This was a real statement. It had the desired impact and was met with anger from those it was targetting. And secondly, the Baltimore Ravens followed suit late on Thursday evening.
The Ravens are the first NFL team to say what Kaepernick was saying. Their tweet encompassed a variety of specific problems that need to be addressed. They called for the arrest of Breonna Taylor's killers and those who shot Jacob Blake. They demanded that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 to the Senate floor to vote.
These are real statements. They make others uncomfortable because that's what actual change requires. Progress doesn't come comfortably and we've allowed ourselves this year to fall into a lull of believing the PR that change comes without real statements of intent.
George Hill's Milwaukee Bucks went on strike this week because of that lull and the hopelessness it fostered.
When the NBA returned to its bubble in Florida, the 30 owners agreed to pay $1 million each to charities over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is worth $72 billion. The DeVos family, who own the Orlando Magic, donated $14 million over two years to Republicans who uphold many of the laws Black Lives Matter want to change. That same family refused to pay their stadium's staff at the start of the coronavirus shutdown, leading to rookie Zion Williamson covering the bill.
NBA owners, like NFL and other owners of major corporations, want the public appearance of supporting Black Lives Matter but most privately continue to support the politicians who oppose the laws Black Lives Matter want changed.
Lebron James previously called out NFL owners for this hypocrisy in 2018. When the Bucks went on strike this week, James confronted NBA owners with one clear message:
Sources say Lebron James was the last player to speak on the call and he delivered a strong, thoughtful message to the owners. His main point was that the work has to continue, and the owners have to truly dedicate to advancing this cause.
— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) August 27, 2020
The structure of sports in America is such that TV money is more important than anything else. When the NBA players threatened to skip the playoffs, owners were faced with the prospect of giving back a significant portion of the $2+ billion per year they get from tv rights. Threatening the pockets of owners has historically been the only way to get action from them.
NFL owners haven't had their pockets threatened yet.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti two years ago asked for people to pray for him as he dealt with fan backlash from the suggestion his franchise might sign Kaepernick. That's a stark contrast to the tweet the Ravens sent out this week. Kaepernick remains a free agent but it's not a coincidence that Lamar Jackson's franchise became the first to echo his protest.
The NFL is blacker now than ever before. That's not because of the ratio of black players to white players. It's because, for the first time in history, the two faces of the league are black quarterbacks. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are exceptional talents on the field and exciting marketing prospects off of it. Mahomes has already stated how he understands the weight of his voice.
His trajectory is such that he can rival Lebron James' star within the confines of his sport. This season might be when he begins to transcend sports like Lebron has for a decade.