The roots of Black activism in athletics run deep—and now, they’re stronger than ever.
hen legendary civil rights leader and US Congressman John Lewis passed away in July, the hashtag #GoodTrouble began trending on Twitter in reference to one of Lewis’ most powerful quotes on activism: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
In 2016, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality towards Black Americans and became the poster child for modern-day athlete activism. Widely criticized for his stance and ostracized by the National Football League (NFL), Kaepernick, it turns out, got into #GoodTrouble.
When George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in May at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota, the incident reignited the conversation about excessive force in policing towards the Black community in America and sparked global anti-racism protests.
Perhaps nowhere has the impact of America’s racial reckoning and activism been felt more than in the world of sports. In the months following Floyd’s murder, sports leagues across the US embarked on nationwide social justice initiatives.
NASCAR announced in June it was banning the confederate flag at all racing events. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, the only African-American driver on the national race circuit, wore a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. Other drivers stood behind him in a powerful show of solidarity at an event following the ban.
“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” NASCAR said in a statement on its website hours before its race in Martinsville, Virginia.
In July, Washington’s NFL team announced that it would change its name following decades of pressure to stop using Redskins, an obvious racial slur. Corporate sponsors FedEx, PepsiCo, Nike, and Bank of America had urged the team to change its name. Stores, including Wal-Mart and Target, stopped selling team merchandise on their websites. Over a dozen Native American leaders and organizations wrote to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, demanding an immediate end to Washington’s use of the name.
Back in February, #Justice4Breonna became a cause for the NBA in the name of Breonna Taylor,
an EMT who was shot and killed while sleeping in her apartment in Kentucky during a botched police raid. When the NBA resumed its season in June after being cut short by COVID-19, it had already decided to protest in support of justice for Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who was also killed in February by two white men while jogging in Georgia. The murder was captured on video. NBA teams are also offering their arenas to counter voter suppres- sion and ensure all Americans can exercise their right to vote during this pandemic.
In August, an unarmed Black man named James Blake was shot seven times in the back by a Wisconsin police officer. The disturbing video of the murder that was captured by a witness (police were not wearing body cameras), sparked national outrage, and became another social justice protest catalyst.
Athletes from the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and NFL began another wave of protests for social justice. They staged a strike that forced the cancellation of games or practices. Even the National Hockey League (NHL), where just five percent of players identify as non-white, (compared to 41 percent of MLB, 70 percent of NFL, and 82 percent of NBA players), joined the other leagues in solidarity by striking and missing games in protest.
Despite the current political divide in the US, consumers seem to be paying attention. According to The Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Brand Trust in 2020, brands face a fundamental reordering of priorities amid a global pandemic and societal outcry over systemic racism. Around 74 percent say a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important.
Perhaps people will learn to applaud players in competitive sports for getting into Good Trouble.