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It’s been just about a year — 11 months — since Howard Bryant wrote a column for ESPN that I haven’t really stopped thinking about since. Bryant discussed the problems with athletes and politics, and how they’re expected to give us strength by showing up on the field, but not by actually doing or saying anything political. And how far too many athletes are happy to oblige this expectation that they stick to sports, how they tend to be reactive instead of proactive about politics, if they do anything at all. You should read the whole thing if you never have, but for our purposes, here’s some of my analysis of a key section I’d like to revisit today:
It’s that act of “knowing their place” and refusing to challenge authority, that Bryant wants to focus on. Athletes attempt to be “simultaneously impactful and inoffensive,” with sports as a whole “positioning its teams, leagues and athletes as neutral, nonpartisan humanitarians.” Do you need some relief money after a disaster? Athletes can provide that! Do you want someone to speak out on some of the causes of the disaster or catastrophe, especially when they’ve been created by humanity? Or maybe speak out before there is a disaster, when it can still be avoided somehow? Many athletes can’t help you there, lest they appear as anything besides benevolent-but-neutral observers with sizable bank accounts they’re open to sharing if the occasion calls for it.
This summer brought us a mix of athletes speaking up after the fact and leagues doing public-relations-fueled “activism” for Black Lives Matter in the wake of the police murdering George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, so in that sense, not much has changed since Bryant first wrote this. You’re starting to see, though, some instances of athletes speaking up more often, more regularly, and not just in or immediately after the moment, with the focus on less noticeable, more insidious issues that help fuel a climate where police violence against Black people is regularly excused as normal.
You had the Rockies’ Ian Desmond explaining why he wouldn’t be playing in the pandemic-shortened 2020 MLB season, using the opportunity to discuss the racism within MLB itself, from front office to clubhouse, and how MLB shoves Black players into white America’s box to the detriment of those players and the league itself. You had the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown using his time with the media during the NBA’s own pandemic portion of the schedule to continually discuss police brutality against Black Americans, and how this isn’t a thing that just happened out of nowhere or recently, but is instead ingrained in both the Black and American experience. Kyrie Irving now famously spoke out against participating in that same portion of the NBA season, and he wasn’t wrong about the focus being in the wrong place if basketball was placed ahead of the movement. The WNBA’s players not only dealt with Black Lives Matter and having to play during a pandemic, but they also went up against Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, a person who is both in the federal government and owns a professional basketball team who also believes that politics and sports should be separate.
Loeffler, by the way, keeps posing for photos with noted white supremacists in the weeks leading up to Georgia’s election that will determine whether she gets to stay in the Senate or not, and while she then denounces said white supremacists after being called out for it, it’s not like her policies and political alignment is very far off from their own. Again: she spent the summer campaigning on being against Black Lives Matter, and telling her employees, many of whom are Black, to shut up and get back to work for her.
Anyway! I bring all of this up because the world Bryant hoped for seems to be coming along little by little, not as fast as you’d like, but there is some progress. The latest of which has to do with Jaylen Brown once again, but not by his lonesome. Far from it, even, as the entire Boston Celtics’ roster wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe, addressed to Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, against the use of facial recognition technology, stating that it’s a racial justice issue.
The short of it is that there is a police reform bill being worked on in Massachusetts, and Baker rejected the portion of it having to do with facial recognition bans. The long of it is how the Celtics’ reacted to this:
This bias against Black people and other people of color is baked into the criminal legal system, and it’s perpetuated at every level, including the tools that police departments use. That’s why we were disappointed to see that Governor Charlie Baker, in his amendments to the police reform legislation, removed the bill’s proposed regulations of government use of facial recognition technology. Baker’s rejection is deeply troubling because this technology supercharges racial profiling by police and has resulted in the wrongful arrests of innocent people.
Studies confirm that face recognition surveillance technology is flawed and biased, with significantly higher error rates when used against people of color and women. The ACLU of Massachusetts tested a widely available face recognition application last year, comparing official headshots of 188 New England athletes with a database of mugshots. Unsurprisingly, 27 professional athletes, including two Celtics players, were falsely matched.
The op-ed goes on to explain that the police are not required to even disclose when they use facial recognition technology, not even to those they arrest or their defense attorney, and highlights how it is a tech disproportionately used against Black people, to uphold a system that already disproportionately punishes and threatens and brutalizes them. You should read the whole thing, and not just because some athletes wrote it.
The fact that “some athletes wrote it” is a genuine holy shit moment, though, and one worth recognizing. The Celtics’ players aren’t reacting to some major moment after it happens, or by just throwing some money at a cause. They are in the moment, they are both reacting and being proactive, and they are using their platform, as a cohesive unit, to try to improve the present and the future. This is what we need more of: athletes coming together in solidarity to actually say and do something. Not to slap on a BLM shirt during batting practice (while also wearing the hat of a local police force, like the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber did this summer), or for players in the current climate to think that kneeling is enough activism for today. But more like what the Celtics are doing right now, putting themselves on the line, as a group, for something they believe in. Targeting and criticizing a power structure, and doing so publicly.