Sports·Opinion

2020 is the year athletes saw the evidence of their true power

As CBC Sports Senior Contributor Morgan Campbell writes, 2020 has taught us that athletes don't just intend to benefit from changing the sports industry's racist habits. Athlete-activists intend to drive that transformation.

It appears the activist-athlete is only just getting started

Athletes around the globe raised their fists - and their voices - in protest of racism and inequality this year. (Getty Images)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

No matter how many recounts lame-duck U.S. president Donald Trump finagles, he'll never win Georgia. He'll keep losing at the ballot box, where president-elect Joe Biden garnered 49.5 per cent of the vote, compared with 49.3 per cent for Trump. And he won't win in the courtroom, where judges have rejected Team Trump's legal challenges with the fervour of a prime Dikembe Mutombo.

We could attribute Biden's margin of victory to several Georgia municipalities, densely populated blue islands in a largely red state, but let's focus on Fulton County, which encompasses downtown Atlanta, and where locals could vote early at State Farm Arena, home of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. According to published reports, 40,000 Georgians voted at the State Farm Arena's COVID-safe polling site.

Fulton County is also Biden Country, where the president-elect won nearly 73 per cent of votes. If the people casting ballots at State Farm Arena fit that statistical profile, Biden likely collected roughly 29,000 votes there — in a state he won by fewer than 12,000.

Erasing those votes — the fast-receding dream of Trump and his surrogates — would likely alter the outcome and divert Georgia's 16 electoral college votes to Trump. But those votes accrued to Biden for a variety of reasons, including people like Stacey Abrams, whose relentless, years-long registration campaign yielded a bumper crop of African-American voters.

And also NBA players, who walked off the job in August to protest the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisc. They wouldn't return to work until the NBA pledged to use its arenas as polling places in the November election, setting the stage for Biden to run up big numbers against Trump in downtown Atlanta during a pandemic.

Moves like that helped prompt Sports Illustrated to name The Activist-Athlete as its Sportsperson of The Year. The magazine singled out five individuals, including Kansas City Chiefs' lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a Super Bowl champion and a medical doctor who opted out of the 2020 season to care for COVID-19 patients in his native Montreal.

So if anyone questions whether activism among high-profile athletes can yield concrete results, we can point to the U.S. electoral map, where Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia since Bill Clinton did it in 1992.

Or to the WNBA, where since the summer players have supported Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock in his Georgia senate race even though his opponent, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, co-owns the league's Atlanta franchise. The WNBA was also the home of Maya Moore until the star forward paused her career to help free wrongfully-convicted Jonathan Irons, who is now her husband, from a Missouri prison.

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From Kaepernick to Dumba

Or we can witness major pro leagues' quick and warm embrace of anti-racism messages once considered too politically fraught to coexist with their on-field product.

In 2016-17, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was essentially blackballed for sitting out the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism. This past summer the NHL handed Matt Dumba a microphone so the Minnesota Wild player could make a pre-game speech reminding fans that Black Lives Matter.

What's less clear is whether, for sports industry cheque-writers and decision-makers, the current dedication to combating anti-Blackness is a permanent feature or just a trend. We don't know if it'll stick around, like the NBA's three-point line has, or vanish when reactionary zeal subsides, like the NBA's dress code did.

Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba takes a knee during the national anthem flanked by Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse, right, and Chicago Blackhawks' Malcolm Subban after making an anti-racism speech before a playoff game in Edmonton on Aug. 1. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Leagues' messaging rings hypocritical

Symbols of the fight against racism abound in myriad sports. The knee-taking and fist-raising before NBA games is now so widespread that it has become part of the spectacle, like the New Zealand All-Blacks performing a haka before an international match.

And we see slogans like "End Racism" stenciled into NFL end zones, or players with the names of Black victims of police shootings printed on the backs of their helmets. This season's embrace of Black activism marks a stark departure for a league whose previous attempt at fighting racism involved hiring Jay-Z as a consultant, and promoting the self-consciously race neutral slogan "Inspire Change."

But if you think the messaging rings hypocritical, you're not wrong. Between positive tests and the isolation of close contacts, the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged NFL rosters so thoroughly that the Denver Broncos had to field a practice-squad wide receiver at starting quarterback two weeks ago — yet somehow NFL teams can't seem to find Kaepernick's phone number.

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2020 showed the whole of sports is greater than the sum of its parts

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A comfort with racism

NFL team owners, let's remember, overwhelmingly support Trump and other Republicans. According to OpenSecrets.org, 85 per cent of the money donated by NFL owners to political campaigns in 2020 went to Republican candidates. Even team owners in the comparatively progressive NBA tend to give more money to Republicans — 53.4 per cent of donations since 2015, according to The Ringer — than to Democrats.

Those numbers alone don't paint team owners as personally racist, but they certainly indicate a comfort with racism, and with a political party whose leader, Trump, has a high-profile history of racist acts.

In the early 1990s he campaigned for the execution of five Black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in New York City's Central Park. This year, instead of rejecting an endorsement from a white supremacist group, The Proud Boys, Trump told them to "stand back and stand by." And since the election Trump's legal team has tried, unsuccessfully, to disqualify votes in places like Detroit and Atlanta, where NBA arenas served as polling places, and where a critical mass of Black residents voted overwhelmingly for Biden.

We won't know until the next election cycle whether this past summer's activism and this fall's electoral result will prompt sports team owners, who proclaim in public that they're committed to fighting racism, to recalibrate their relationship with the Republican party.

Racism built into the structure of for-profit sports won't disappear in a week, or a season, or a year. It took until this autumn for the NFL to accept that the words "End Racism" wouldn't trigger an exodus of longtime fans. And it'll probably still take years before NFL teams are as comfortable hiring Black head coaches as they are drafting Black defensive backs.

This year has reminded us that phasing racism out of the sports industry, and society, isn't an event — it's a process, non-linear and littered with pitfalls and setbacks alongside success. So, the activism driving can take the form of big acts, or a string of small acts forming an ongoing campaign.

Either way, 2020 has taught us that athletes don't just intend to benefit from changing the sports industry's racist habits. Athlete-activists intend to drive that transformation.

About the Author

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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