Sports felt secondary for much of 2020 during a global health crisis, economic fallout and racial justice protests, but athletes still took center stage in another familiar way.
They wore racial justice slogans on their jerseys and shoes, kneeled during the national anthem, participated in demonstrations. The Milwaukee Bucks went on strike before their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic in the NBA bubble in August, prompting the league to postpone all other games that day. WNBA games were also pushed back.
“It’s amazing to me why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said in a press conference after he saw the video of police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shoot Jacob Blake in his back as Blake leaned into his car.
NBA players were given a list of slogans to choose from upon the league’s return to play in Orlando. Options included “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Their Names” and “I Can’t Breathe.” LeBron James chose to not wear a slogan on his jersey, in part because he felt left out of the process.
“I would have loved to have a say so on what would have went on the back of my jersey,” he told media in July. “I had a couple things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process and that’s OK.”
Along with strikes and protests, many teams across sports took up voter registration initiatives ahead of the general election. Twenty of the NBA’s 30 teams ended up with 100% voter registration, and 96% of players league-wide were registered to vote by mid-October.
Baseball, a sport not typically associated with anywhere near the level of activism found in the NBA or NFL, was the first major sport to return to play amid the COVID-19 pandemic. MLB featured “BLM” logos on pitchers mounds after ESPN reported the league and players had discussions about how to address social justice during the shortened 60-game season.
Chicago White Sox star Tim Anderson, one of about 80 Black players on opening day rosters across the league, joined some teammates and coaches in kneeling during the anthem before the club’s season opener against the Minnesota Twins.
“I am the only Black guy (on the team),” Anderson told media, “so it was only right that I had to show my love.”
College football players spent most of the spring and summer not knowing if there would be a season. Unlike professional athletes who are paid and represented by unions, college athletes were left sifting through various messages from the NCAA, conferences and their individual schools.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban led dozens of his players in a march on campus in August. Alabama represents the pinnacle of college football, a multibillion-dollar industry in which about half of the players are Black.
“For certain, we can’t let this momentum die,” running back Najee Harris said. “This has to be an ongoing movement until change happens. We must do more as a team and as individuals to keep this movement going.”
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is credited with the most recent wave of activism when he began sitting — and then kneeling — for the national anthem during NFL preseason games in 2016. Others soon followed.
Athletes have used their voice for social and racial justice for decades. A big difference is now it isn’t only individuals who stand out — like Jackie Robinson in baseball, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, or Muhammad Ali in boxing. It’s whole teams and whole leagues.
“We’re here to say we’re hurt,” Colts backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett said in August when the team canceled practice to outline future initiatives such as voter registration. “We’re hurt because we feel the pain not only of our Black teammates but our Black community. We understand that we have to use our platform, not only individually, but collectively as an organization.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.