“Come back, Maya!” Imani McGee-Stafford exclaimed during a call with me on Saturday, June 13. “Come back, Maya!”
She was referring, of course, to Maya Moore: the WNBA star who called a temporary pause on her basketball career at the basketball-prime age of 29, just off the heels of winning her fourth WNBA championship in 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer vowed to throw all of her energy into freeing Jonathan Irons: an African-American man from her home state of Missouri whom she believes was wrongly convicted.
McGee-Stafford, like most WNBA fans, misses seeing Moore on the court. She also understands and respects the sacrifice Moore is making for a greater good. Her own decision to step away from basketball for two years to attend law school was influenced by “the blueprint” Moore laid down when she traded in a quest for game wins with a pursuit of legal victories on behalf of Irons and criminal justice reform generally.
The 2020 WNBA season was supposed to begin on May 15, but tipoff was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The league announced on June 15 that an abbreviated 22-game season would be played from the confines of IMG Academy in Florida beginning in late July. Yet, the economic and health crises the pandemic presented were compounded by civil unrest stemming from the police killings of unarmed African Americans, which shifted the players’ focus to social justice issues.
While some believe Black athletes should not be entertaining a U.S. fan base while Black Americans are still being gunned down on a daily basis, even amid ongoing protests stemming from the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the other view is that a return to play will return players to a large platform from which they can work to effect change.
“I see both sides,” McGee-Stafford said, about whether the nation should return to basketball.
During my conversation on June 15 with JaVale McGee—McGee-Stafford’s older brother and two-time NBA champion now vying for his third title with the Los Angeles Lakers—the 7-foot-0 center said of a return to game action: “I’m more concerned about COVID, if anything.”
The NBA will finish its 2019-20 season at Disney World in Orlando.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
Professional athletes are some of the healthiest humans among us, but the coronavirus remains highly contagious and COVID-19 potentially deadly, especially for older people and those with compromised immune systems from underlying health issues. Once the WNBA players and NBA players enter IMG Academy and Disney World, respectively, they will not be able to exit. But arena workers, vendors, television crews and others will be coming and going, posing risks of spreading the coronavirus to everyone at the sites. With Florida reporting record-high single-day cases of the coronavirus, the threat is real. Major League Baseball, though mired in a battle with its players’ association, has announced the closure of its spring training facilities in Florida due to the spike in reported cases.
If the sporting show must go on, no players are more deserving of a season than those in the WNBA. The Women’s Basketball Players’ Association (WNBPA) reached a landmark collective bargaining agreement with the league and deserves to capitalize on that momentum. The WNBPA’s accomplishment was so profound that the players’ union was named recipient of the 2020 Eleanor Roosevelt Human Right Award. Yet, it is impossible to fully embrace a return to sports at a socially critical time for race relations and during a pandemic—both caused by life-endangering viruses that are killing Black Americans in numbers exceeding those of other racial groups.
A gold-medal winning gas station attendant
For Jesse Owens, the Olympic village in 1936 Berlin was “one of the seven wonders of the world.” In Germany, in spite of Adolph Hitler’s reign, Owens had been treated with basic decency and respect by the German people that he had not known as a Black man living in the United States. Still, this was Nazi Germany, and Hitler was using the Olympic Games as a tool to prove Aryan white supremacy. When Owens ascended the medal stand, the crowd cheered and Hitler exited the stadium without acknowledging Owens’ historic accomplishments: four gold medals and three world records.
The momentary snub witnessed by the world was no worse than what Owens had experienced on a daily basis, from birth, in a segregated United States built from the forced labor of Africans brought to the Americas in shackles. The son of sharecroppers, Owens had to work picking cotton from the age of seven years old, something many Americans, of any racial persuasion, cannot fathom today. From those beginnings, he became a track star and in high school, which led him to higher education at Ohio State University.
“His life, when he came back (from the 1936 Berlin Games), was quickly mired in American racism, and the lack of opportunities for Black men, even famous black men,” history professor David Steigerwald said in the 2011 documentary “Jesse Owens: Enduring Spirit.”
The documentary reveals that the White athletes who won medals at the 1936 Games were invited to visit the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Owens and the other Black athletes were not.
“The hypocrisy of American race relations followed Owens home,” Steigerwald said. “He won his medals and lots of Americans declared it a strike against Aryan racism without bothering to check their own.”
What Owens returned to was an inability to find sustainable, dignified employment. He participated in “spectacle” races, such as running against horses and racing around baseball diamonds during games. For a time, he worked as a gas station attendant. The promises of big employment opportunities he’d been given while in Berlin had all been lies told to get him to compete in Games many African Americans disagreed with. “It became increasingly apparent that everyone was going to slap me on the back, shake my hand or have me up to their suite, but no one was going to offer me a job,” Owens said of his post-Olympics struggles.
Thus, he navigated the segregated life he’d known his whole life. As a star track athlete at Ohio State, he had been banned from living in the dorms with his White teammates and was forbidden to sit down and have a meal with his White counterparts, despite being captain of the team. But that was then, when water fountains had signs screaming “WHITES ONLY” and African Americans, after paying for a meal, were denied the option of sitting down to eat it in the restaurant where they’d just spent hard-earned money from underpaying, barely-there jobs.
Times have changed. Right?
The two deadly viruses of 2020
It is now 2020 and humankind is facing the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists are working around the clock to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Sorry anti-vaxxers, but history shows vaccines can manage or stop viral spreads, such as was the case in the 1950s with the polio vaccine.
History also shows a history of Black athletes protesting racial injustice, but we’ll return there in a moment.
Like COVID-19, racism is a deadly virus, but it differs from its polio counterpart because a vaccine does not exist to stop its spread. It differs from the coronavirus because governments and institutions are not embarking upon emergency efforts to develop a vaccine to eradicate its spread.
By the 1950s, around the same time as the development of the polio vaccine, Black Americans had had enough of the segregated, second-class lives assigned to them. They began pushing back. The concept of “separate but equal” was exposed as a tool of further injustice—schools in Black neighborhoods did not have adequate resources, making access to equal education impossible. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that school segregation based on race was unconstitutional, paving the way for schools to be desegregated. Passage of Brown vs. Board of Education was met with the expected hostility and violence of White people who did not want their children in the same room with Black kids.
It is 2020, and racial inequities still exist because the virus racism hasn’t been stopped. The inequities simply show up in different ways. Following some nifty shape-shifting mutations, the virus racism produces the same dehumanizing results. Our nation is in crisis in 2020 (which hopefully will become a point of reckoning) because of sustained resistance to full equality and derision towards those, including Black athletes, who have dared to use their platforms in defense of inalienable human rights.
Of power and peace
By the time the Mexico City Olympics rolled around in October 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, like all African Americans, were fed up the institutionalized racism that showed up in every aspect of their lives. Black Americans didn’t get the good jobs. If they did, it was a rare occurrence – just like today. If they got jobs, they struggled to earn salaries equal to their White counterparts – just like today. Though American life was segregated on paper by mandate of the Supreme Court of the United States, those changes did not manifest into equal access to opportunity and better living conditions because the virus racism lived on.
By the time Tommie Smith and John Carlos arrived in Mexico, the Civil Rights Movement had brought landmark legislative achievements designed to treat the symptoms caused by the virus racism. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 “ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin” and it is considered a “crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.” But it was a long 10 years between school desegregation and the end of segregation outright. It would take decades more for the Supreme Court to rule, on June 15, 2020, that LGBTQ individuals are guaranteed these same rights under the law. It was President John F. Kennedy who had proposed broad civil rights laws. In June 1968, he was assassinated for his efforts toward racial equality. This, after the most notable civil rights leader in U.S. history, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated just two months prior.
Add in that America was at war in Vietnam and Black Americans were dying at rates higher than their White counterparts who used loopholes to evade the draft, Smith and Carlos reached the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics grief-stricken and disillusioned. They had suffered under the brutality of white supremacy and fought for their basic human rights, only to see the lives of the leaders with enough courage and spiritual soundness to seek treatments for the virus racism cut short. So, of course Smith, Carlos and other Black athletes would bring the attention of the world to the plight of African Americans.
“As soon as we walked off, I heard boos, and catcalls,” Smith said in a 2012 video produced by Team USA. “I saw the most vivid depictions of hate, the most vivid depictions of, ‘How could you boy? How could you do this to your country? How could you do this to these Games?’ …”
In effect, Smith and Carlos had punched spectators, and the world, out of their happy place. Their balloon of euphoria derived from bearing witness to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat on the biggest stage, in the longest-running organized sporting event in human history, was burst. The spectators’ bubble was popped by two black men demanding to be seen as human; to be afforded the same rights as White Americans; to be granted the same access to employment opportunity and equal pay their White counterparts enjoyed. They demanded to be seen as completely human rather than as athletic beings alone; to be valued in all aspects of life, not just while entertaining. They refused to allow their short-lived moments of victory at the Olympics to be the only time they’d be treated with the common decency all humans deserve.
Smith arrived in Mexico prepared to issue a “cry for freedom,” and he would not have it quelled by hateful, racist jeers. “When I went back across the track, my fist went up in the air again because of what I saw in the stands,” Smith said. In a 2016 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he said a fist thrust upward is a symbol of power.
[Side note: Do not use this symbol in vain. Any major company making money off the image and not donating it to causes supporting Black Americans should consider itself on the wrong side of everything. Keep selling products with the image, but use the profits to help Black lives. For White executives to enrich themselves off the struggle of African Americans should be considered unethical and exploitative.]
To signify poverty, Smith, just 24 years old, wore one shoe onto the medal stand and carried with him in a box a piece of an olive branch, a symbol of peace. Combined, he sought to bring the attention of the world to the suffering of Black Americans and assert a desire for peace during the process of trying to achieve racial justice. Fans of the NFL and mainstream media’s talking heads booed Colin Kaepernick and misaligned his peaceful protest against the police killings of African Americans with desecration of the U.S flag. Similarly, talking head Laura Ingraham of Fox News told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” for his various peaceful protests and social activism toward ending racial injustice.
In 2020, however, Ingraham proclaimed that Drew Brees, a White quarterback in the NFL, has a right to his opinion.
Make way for lasting change
In 2016, the Minnesota Lynx protested the police killings of Philando Castile and other Black Americans by wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts during their pregame warmup. The police officers assigned to provide security for the game walked out in protest … of the Lynx’s peaceful protest that the team’s star, Maya Moore, described in a pregame news conference as “wearing shirts to honor and mourn the losses of precious American citizens and to plead for change in all of us.”
To plead for change in all of us.
To urge a cure for the virus racism, which history has demonstrated will not go away by treating the symptoms alone. Yes, treating the symptoms is imperative, but the vaccine is a change of heart, a change of spirit. Only fundamental change in the souls of people will make way for lasting change. Case-by-case injustices need to be addressed, but the virus will rear its ugly ahead again and again if change isn’t made at a fundamental level. Not just to the quilt, or to the individual squares that make it up. Change must happen with the threads—at the level that makes the fabric up.
The thread of our nation is the virus racism and the myriad forms of exploitation stemming from it. It was so when Europeans came to this soil, decimated the Native people living here first, pilfered their land and forced the Africans brought with them in shackles to work toward building a society. How could the United States of America be anywhere other than exactly where it is right now given its brutal beginning?
The Maya-Minnesota link
The WNBA initially fined players who wore the Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Although those fines were later rescinded, it is worth mentioning the efforts to which individuals and institutions will go to keep systems status quo so that no one becomes uncomfortable. No one, except African Americans and other minorities who have borne the brunt of discomfort from day one.
Maya Moore, who has played her whole career with the Lynx, is up for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award. She, above the male candidates from other leagues, deserves to win it. No one else has sacrificed their playing prime to further social justice, and her actions are especially pertinent in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minnesota. Had the efforts of Moore, the Lynx, other teams in the WNBA, teams in the NBA and individual players in the NFL sparked the change those actions intended, perhaps Floyd and so many others would be alive. Perhaps their spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings and children would not be without their loved ones today.
All of these players protested peacefully with the objective of saving lives. Because the lives they aim to save are Black, the virus racism casts the issue through a muddy lens. Racism suggests that those dead Black people must have been up to no good while waiting on the side of the road with a broken-down vehicle, or walking home at night after a candy run, or sitting at home eating ice cream and watching television.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed eradicate racism from public spaces, in all areas of life. Yet, here we are, in 2020, with global protests following the emergence of a video, now viral, of Floyd’s agonizing eight-minute and 46-second murder.
“To plead for change in all of us,” Maya Moore said. Change, because only a person with a soul decimated by the virus racism would not remove his knee from the neck of another human amid frantic pleas, and after the human lost consciousness.
The coronavirus has been a worldwide deadly scourge in 2020, but the virus racism has been raging for centuries, quelled temporarily by legislation and social justice movements to treat the symptoms. Without the vaccines of reparation, reconciliation and healing—internally motivated by individuals and institutions—the U.S. will remain structurally unstable and spiritually and morally diseased.
Thus, sports fans should not be confused about a vital fact: Sports care coming back but that doesn’t mean you deserve them. Historically, none of us deserves the greatness Black athletes had provided. We have not treated their humanity with respect and do not deserve to be entertained by them until we support and advocate for their right to full personhood. America deserves to sit in the viral infection racism has caused and systems in this country have upheld. Black Americans already have been sitting in it, drowning, unable to breathe, fighting our way out.
It’s your turn, White America.
Take some of the burden off our backs and carry the load. Get right with yourselves and explain to your families and friends how they can get themselves right, too. It won’t be easy; it won’t happen overnight. But it can happen by mustering even a tenth of the inner fortitude Black Americans have to muster to get through any given day. It’s not easy, but you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps, just as you’ve asked of us, even though you demanded this of us while historically denying us basic human rights.
Kudos to the Black Americans who’ve excelled beyond their ancestors’ wildest dreams! They are miraculous lights beaconing subsequent generations to follow. Athletes are among these success stories and we admire them as inspirational because they model hard work, sacrifice and commitment to improvement—lessons Americans should emulate both collectively and individually.
The champions we admire hold trophies and gold medals because they believe in the possibility of victory and work towards it. Victory on these two deadly viruses can be ours, too, with racism being the more difficult to combat. But we have no chance if we don’t throw our full selves into the endeavor. Failure to go as hard as the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun in the 2019 WNBA Finals to search for the threads of racism that make this society up, pluck them out and weave the fabric anew means death. Not figurative death, but morgue and medical examiner death. Grieving a loved one’s death.
Our nation recently watched SpaceX launch humans into space in roughly 12 minutes. If humans can achieve this, humans can achieve anything—but only with concerted effort powered by spirits reformed of racial hatred.
Freedom for Gold – Gold Medal Moments: Tommie Smith (Team USA, 2012); Jesse Owens: Enduring Spirit (WOSU Public Media, Ohio State University, 2011.