Commentary

Q&A: Howard Bryant talks about the future of activism in sports

The author and longtime sports journalist discusses the role NBA players, like the Celtics' Jaylen Brown, had in reshaping the sports landscape through protest last year.

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Jaylen Brown of the Celtics warms up in a VOTE shirt prior to a game against the Miami Heat during the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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A year ago last week, the shooting of Jacob Blake shook the sports world, bringing the NBA and WNBA playoff bubbles to a standstill as players protested by walking off the basketball court.

Those demonstrations marked another important chapter in a year of unrest and protests against racial injustice that reached a fever pitch with the murder of George Floyd, with athletes and organizations across sports using their voices outside the lines in an unprecedented way.

Boston.com spoke with Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media about how athletes’ use of their platform to speak out about societal issues is changing sports and the way we view the people that play them.

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Here are excerpts of the conversation.

How much has the fallout from 2020 changed the sports world?

It is absolutely a very important time that we’re in. I think one of the things when you have moments like you had in 2020 – the perfect storm of a pandemic, of all the different uprisings and all things that were taking place and at the same time you’ve got a presidential election that was as contentious as it was – there’s always going to be fallout. It’s not just the event. It’s also the aftermath.

What that’s done in terms of how we view ourselves and our surroundings, especially if you’re looking at it from a sports standpoint…sports really are not a unifier. Sports are a complete divider right now.

I think sports’ lean had always been, in times of crisis sports is going to be the thing that heals us. Sports is going to be the thing that brings us together. Sports is going to be the thing that reminds us that we’re all the same at the end of the day. That is not what’s happening right now. What’s happening right now is: “Is this player vaxxed, or is that player unvaxxed?” “Is this player kneeling, or is this player not kneeling?” “Is this player a Donald Trump supporter? Is that person not?” Every place you go in sports, it becomes more and more contentious. It’s uncharted territory.

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Are these divisions a sign that the line between real life and sports has started to dissolve, that we have to accept that it’s no longer “just about the game?”

It’s not just about the game, and it never was only about the game. It was about the game for white people and for people who didn’t have a stake in it, who didn’t need the game to be more than that. But that’s never been the case for Black people.

When you look at African Americans in terms of…who has the ear of the people of this country, it’s always been athletes, entertainers, etc. So the Black athlete has never had that luxury. The Black fan has never had that luxury because they look toward the player to be some form of advocate for them in times of crisis because they’re the ones who made it. They’re the ones with the money. They’re the ones the people listen to. It’s not the same as if you’re a majority and you’ve got your doctors and your lawyers and your senators and your other advocates out there. You don’t need a left fielder to make a political statement, but African Americans always have.

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I think what’s happening is, during this period, everyone is finding out there’s no escape and that the lie of the escape is now permeating the communities that just went to the games to be entertained.

What went through your mind as you saw athletes putting the issues of racial injustice so front-and-center last year after the murder of George Floyd?

I think it’s something we’ve been dealing with probably since Trayvon Martin. But the biggest difference that you saw [last year] was the folks who were most responsible and the most reluctant to even acknowledge any of this was happening try to put themselves on the right side of the issue.

So all of a sudden you see [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell out there of all people say, “We were wrong.” And yet there was no industry that was more unambiguous about how they felt about protests than the National Football League. The NFL has made it very, very clear how they felt about this pretty much since [Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the anthem in] 2016.

You had the Red Sox and Major League Baseball and the GMs talking about these issues, and baseball had been as invisible as any sport in terms of acknowledging what was happening in the “real world.” Now, you go down the Mass Pike and you look over to your right, there’s Fenway Park…now it says “Black Lives Matter.”

There’s always a galvanizing event. This one happened to be George Floyd. And it has changed how industries view race in the United States. It’s a bittersweet moment because, at the end of the day, there’s another Black man who was buried because of all this.

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How big an impression and lasting impact did the protests have in your view?

It had a huge impact because of the visibility of it all. Once again, these visceral displays, they create an emotion. They create something when you’re a viewer. You want to watch a basketball game and you see the words “Black Lives Matter.”

I do make a direct link to, when the games restarted, fans acting out the way they’ve been acting out. Throwing popcorn, throwing bottles, throwing stuff at the players. All of these things are connected. Part of it might be the pandemic, but a lot of it is the reaction to what they’re seeing and what those demonstrations mean to the people buying the tickets — a suggestion of loss of control. This is a shift. This is different.

One of the reasons it bothers me is because you have these things happen and you see it right in front of your face, and then you even have athletes saying, “You can’t just take a knee.” Actually, you can. You can just take a knee because those protest gestures did a lot. All of a sudden, you look at the Capitol and you see politicians kneeling, cops kneeling, [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones kneeling. So all of these different things we were told had no impact and didn’t matter…clearly that gesture is a vindicated gesture.

As a media member, what’s changed about how activism in sports is covered, especially since Colin Kaepernick’s protests in 2016?

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There’s a real fear and a real possibility — and it’s happening in a lot of ways — of the terms “athlete activist” losing sight of what activism actually is. To me, an activist is somebody who is physically in the street. It’s somebody who is closer to communities, is closer to the people, not somebody who writes a check and is further distant from them.

Dwyane Wade buys a one-percent stake of the Utah Jazz and that’s called “activism.” That’s not “activism.” That’s “empire.” That’s business. Suddenly, we’re taking everything that an athlete does and placing it under the umbrella of “activism” when what you’re really seeing is “empire.” And yet we seem to treat this as if it’s somehow in line with fighting school segregation or fighting wealth inequity.

So I think as a media member, as someone who writes about these things, I think it’s very important to be more precise with your terms. To me, when I think about an activist, I think of seeing someone like [Celtics forward] Jaylen Brown arm-in-arm with people in the street. That’s activism. Those are people creating who are closer ties to community.

Staying with Jaylen Brown for a moment…how important is it that younger athletes are taking on central roles in today’s protest movements?

It’s always important when you see citizenship. It’s also important when you see it generationally because this generation is growing up with a certain expectation. The future generations are not going to be as shocked when an athlete takes a political stance or when an athlete advocates.

It’s really not that players are involved [in protests]. What we’re really talking about is the backlash and the price that athletes pay for advocating for Black people. When you advocate for Black people, you put your entire career in jeopardy. So to have someone like Jaylen Brown who can play another decade in this league, to have those players embed a certain level of values to their professional life is really important. What it does is it prepares you. Then suddenly, 10 years from now, it’s not a big deal when a player goes out and advocates, and the real goal is you can advocate for the African American community and have it not be news. It’s just part of what you do.

That is significant. That is a big deal because for the Black athlete, going back 55 years, the No. 1 threat to their livelihood has been supporting Black people.

The fact that athletes (and all Americans) are still fighting these battles over racism can make it feel like little has really changed in those last 50 years. What do you say to that?

I think it’s a cynical and inaccurate approach to say nothing’s changed. Obviously, things are very different than they were in 1967, 1968. At the same time, it’s naive to suggest we’re post-racial, to make the argument that as a group we’re so much more evolved than we were when I was a little kid. It’s just not true.

It’s not linear. We know that every time a Tommy Smith or John Carlos says something, or a Craig Hodges says something, or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf says something, you know there’s a backlash coming. Any time Black people have received anything remotely positive, there’s been a huge overwhelming backlash. You know that’s the battle. I think you have to look it at in a bit more of a “micro” view than a “macro” view.

There’s a fantastic documentary on HBO called “Exterminate All the Brutes” from Raoul Peck, and there’s a great line in one of the episodes where it says, “It’s not knowledge we lack. You know what’s happening. We know what’s happening. If you don’t know what’s happening, go look it up.”

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