Sports·Point of View

Pro athletes remain on front line of revolution for social reform: Russell

En masse boycotts of games for something other than contract squabbles or demands for freedom of speech are, as Scott Russell writes, signals that the struggle for justice is not only intensifying – it's about to reach a fever pitch.

Players in many major sports leagues have unified in protest of Jacob Blake shooting

The words 'Black Lives Matter' are displayed after the postponement of a game between the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park on Wednesday. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The news of sport is less about wins and losses and more about social justice these days.

En masse boycotts of games for something other than contract squabbles, demands for freedom of speech, and messages of solidarity for the "Black Lives Matter" movement on team uniforms, are signals that the struggle for justice is not only intensifying – it's about to reach a fever pitch.

The stakes are getting much higher. There's a revolution going on in sport. Athletes are leading the charge and it's been coming for a long time.

My first job in television was in Charlottetown, P.E.I., back in the mid 1980s and I was given a chance to succeed one of the first female sports broadcasters in Canada, who was moving on to a bigger market in Ottawa.

The boss was a grizzled Englishman who had made a name for himself as a news reporter in Toronto.

"Sport is the battering ram of society," he told me at the outset. "It bangs down barriers and changes things because people pay attention to it."

In the tiny shop he ran, all three news journalists were female – a scenario that was almost unheard of in that place at that time – and he was married to a Black woman.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Devin Heroux on pro sports' wildcat strikes:

Athlete boycotts spread through pro sports

1 year ago
Protests against the police shooting of a Black Wisconsin man are spreading through North American professional sports. Led by NBA players, athlete boycotts are now taking place in Major League Baseball, the NHL and Major League Soccer. 2:05

Much later, when I went to South Africa in advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I visited Robben Island where Nelson Mandela had long been imprisoned because of his opposition to the racially-segregationist apartheid regime of his country.

I started reading about the legendary freedom fighter and found the iconic passage from his speech to the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards of which he was the patron as the first Black president of South Africa.

"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does," Mandela said almost exactly 20 years ago.

"It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all forms of discrimination."

Those are powerful words, and in light of what's happening right now they are as prophetic as the words of my old boss.

The new prophets

Professional sports players are spearheading the change that appears to be coming.

Where once the faces of the civil rights movement and the fight for racial equality were religious leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson, the new visionaries reach their audiences from much different pulpits.

They are the disciples of Mandela (who was a boxer in his youth, by the way), and they subscribe to the belief that, as athletes, they have a much greater obligation to society than merely playing the game.

Nelson Mandela adopts a boxing pose, circa 1950. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

They are increasingly imbued with the understanding that they not only have the power but also the responsibility to be game changers in life.

What's happening in America, the police brutality against Black people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, has erupted into widespread outrage. It has exposed undeniable, systemic racism and intolerance which are of epidemic proportions and running rampant not only in North America but also worldwide.

The fallout has resulted in high profile sports figures appealing to their fan bases on an exalted level.

The players we were once devoted to primarily because they sunk baskets, threw touchdown passes, scored goals and delivered dramatic moments on the fields of play, are finding their voices and a different kind of mission.

It's about much more than winning games now. This involves a more human kind of victory.

Following in their footsteps

While social activism among sports figures is seemingly at an all-time high, it is not a new phenomenon.

When football's Colin Kaepernick took a knee at the national anthem four years ago because he wanted to spark a conversation about police brutality against people of colour and systemic oppression, he was following in the footsteps of boxer Muhammed Ali.

The heavyweight champion of the world, Ali was an outspoken and high-profile touchstone for racial pride during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Muhammad Ali, professional boxer, activist and philanthropist, seen above in 1980. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Similarly, Megan Rapinoe – the American soccer star and FIFA's female player of the year in 2019 – used her acceptance speech to speak out against racism and anti-gay discrimination with great effect. She has become a symbolic figure not only because of her tremendous athletic ability but even more importantly because of her convictions on matters of social importance.

Now, basketball players LeBron James, Fred VanVleet, Natasha Cloud, Maya Moore, and legions of others are joining the fray. They represent a growing number of athletes who are fed up with the old doctrine of hatred.

They are realizing that they share a much more formidable adversary than someone who wears a different coloured jersey on an opposing team.

Unlike the race to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, this is not about science. This challenge can't be boiled down to shooting percentages, analytics, or statistics. It's not about employing a strategy which will win you the game at all costs.

WATCH | CBC Sports' Morgan Campbell on NBA walkouts:

CBC Sports Sr. Contributor Morgan Campbell weighs in on NBA walkout

1 year ago
CBC Sports senior contributor Morgan Campbell joined CBC News Network host Andrew Nichols to discuss the spotlight NBA players are shining on racial injustice. 7:39

This battle is about values, personal philosophy, enlightenment, and doing what is right.

In that sense, many great athletes are discovering that they have a sacred obligation to their fans who follow them at times with a sort of blind devotion.

They feel the need to set an example.

It has often been said that sport, like religion, appeals to the masses. In fact it could be argued that professional sport in North America, indeed internationally, has surpassed religion in the size of the congregation it can reach.

It seems that the men and women of sport have decided to use their platforms to deliver a powerful lesson which will resonate for some time to come.

The new prophets of sport may indeed have the power, as Mandela once said, to change the world forever.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House."

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