Three prominent black sports journalists came to the Jack Morton Auditorium Monday night to celebrate Black History month with a discussion about black activism in the world of sports.
ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, Kevin Merida and Jason Reid delved into the long history of sports being used as a vehicle for protest, from Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising the black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics to more recent examples like Colin Kaepernick and Steph Curry. Cheryl Thompson, an associate professor of media and public affairs, moderated the discussion.
The panel focused on current issues in activism and how the speakers felt black athletes should engage with protests in the future.
1. The power of the platform
The panel began by exploring whether activism had a place in professional sports.
“We’re not putting that genie back in the bottle,” said Merida, the editor-in-chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated, a blog that explores issues at the intersection of race, sports and culture.
Merida said that sports bring everyone together and provide a platform where athletes can use their elevated stature to promote an issue and capture the public and legislators’ attention.
Reid, a senior NFL writer, said that today’s athletes have an unprecedented power because of the figures that came before them, like Muhammad Ali and Craig Hodges, who showed that athletes could also be activists.
“We don’t know what sacrifice is anymore,” Reid said. “Sacrifice is a lyric in a song.”
He added that black athletes today can have the same impact with their protest, but they have enough money and popularity to weather more serious backlash that was directed at some black athletes last century.
2. Committing to the cause
But the panelists noted that activism is not for everyone and said that athletes should stay out of it all together if they were not going to commit.
Wilbon, a former columnist and the long-time co-host of the ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption,” said that some athletes prefer to donate to causes rather than advocate themselves. Wilbon said though basketball icon Michael Jordan has been criticized in the past for not being a particularly vocal activist, Wilbon knew personally that Jordan had donated to former President Barack Obama’s first campaign.
“I have tried to write about it, I have tried to get him to come on the record and talk about it, and he won’t do it,” Wilbon said. “And in some ways much to his credit.”
3. Room for improvement
The speakers agreed that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who made headlines last NFL season for refusing to stand for the national anthem before games, in some ways did a great job of raising awareness for the issue of police brutality.
Still, the panel said there are ways that many athletes, including Kaepernick, could improve their activism.
Reid said that because Kaepernick’s protest came into conflict with the NFL’s patriotic image, the controversy helped further publicize an issue that already had some traction because of extensive reporting of high-profile police shootings of black citizens, most notably in Ferguson, Missouri.
Wilbon said he supported Kaepernick but was dismayed to hear the athlete report that he didn’t vote in last year’s presidential election when many black activists paid for that right with their lives.
“Protest. Good. But I don’t want to hear from any of these dudes kneeling and then say they didn’t vote,” Wilbon said.
In response to an audience question, the journalists said that at times the black community can place too much value on athletics. Wilbon said that this societal issue was akin to putting too many eggs in one basket and that he pushes back against it even in his own household.
“We are both drawn to it like moth to a flame, and we are burned by it,” he said.