By Vernon L. Andrews
I’ve spent more than three decades studying the intersection of sports, race and culture, drawing parallels between race relations in sports arenas and racism across the country. As an academic, it is an area of study that fascinated me because I wanted to research our racial divides through an institution that unites us. As a Black man, I sought to understand why and how, in both sports and society, the rules of the game were consistently rigged against us. In sports, this can be career-ending. In society, it can be fatal.
When I witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd at the knee of Derek Chauvin, someone whose job is to protect us, it was shocking but not surprising. We’ve seen this before, too many times. Trials that involve cases of Black men and women killed by police officers have become a long-running series with no cancellation in sight. Freddie Gray. Sam DuBose. Philando Castile. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Daunte Wright.
We say their names because far too often the names of Black people killed by police are forgotten — or never even mentioned.
When I saw that a verdict had been reached in the George Floyd trial, I figured I had watched this show enough to know the ending. How grateful I am that I was wrong. In sports, one call can change the outcome of the whole game — and I can only hope this verdict is the one call that can begin to change our criminal justice system in America.
But for meaningful change to happen we must understand how we got here. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem was no different than the thousands of people who marched after the murder of George Floyd. In both cases, the message was the same: Stop killing Back people. And in both cases, groups of people in America took offense.
Fans and the NFL criticized Kaepernick for bringing politics into sports, despite the fact that politics is and always has been a part of our sports rituals: The unfurling of the American flag; the removal of hats and the placing of our hands over our hearts as the national anthem is played — yes, these are political statements that say we love our country. And yet, when Kaepernick kneels in the name of racial justice for love of that same country, he is being unpatriotic.
In the course of my decades-long research, I have found that this is the rub. Black people have been judged and feared in this country since they were brought over as slaves. Over the years, this has translated to over-policing and undervaluing of Black lives in America — over-policing of the way we act, the way we talk, and even the way we celebrate. Just look at the common phrase in sports: “Act like you’ve been there before.” This is often in reference to touchdown celebrations, which were viewed as unsportsmanlike behavior and were often penalized and even fined in the NFL until very recently.
But what if they “haven’t been there before?” What if touchdown celebrations are all about traditional Black expression carried out by young Black men who never imagined reaching this height of success? What if celebrating touchdowns was just that, and never about unsportsmanlike conduct? Whether unconscious or conscious, sports rules are biased against Black athletes because there is an assumption of wrongdoing when the behavior does not fit in with white culture or is not understood. As a result, these behaviors are penalized and the only way to avoid being punished is to act like you’ve been there before. In other words: Act white.
In society, this racial disconnect has translated to literal over-policing of Black men and women and has claimed far too many lives. Duante Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was pulled over by police in Brooklyn Center, Minn., and ultimately lost his life for expired registration tags. I have no doubt that a white driver would have left the same situation with nothing more than a citation. Even the words “I can’t breathe” — begging for a basic human function — failed to humanize George Floyd in the eyes of Derek Chauvin and his fellow officers.
I chose sports as a microcosm for race because sports arenas are the only visible laboratory we observe every single week. We share things about behavior and racism in other institutions and talk about it, but we don’t get to see it play out in a lab the way we do in sports. And what I know is that at the fundamental level, we must start by challenging long-held beliefs about why Black people act the way they do. Many of these assumptions are not based on any type of cultural awareness but are instead fueled by fear. “Act like you’ve been there before.” Let me turn that on its head. What if I were to tell a white person to act as if they’ve been Black before? In both cases, the ask is impossible and unfair. So let’s start with that basic understanding that both sides can never assume to be anyone other than who they are, but there can be common ground through cultural understanding and basic human decency.
The verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in the murder of George Floyd was a verdict denied to so many other Black victims before him. And I have every confidence that the voices of thousands of marchers across the country calling for racial justice echoed in that courtroom.
Our community must have a voice in how rules are made and how we are policed. Only then can we truly breathe.
Vernon L. Andrews, PhD., is the author of the newly released book, “Policing Black Athletes: Racial Disconnect in Sports.” Andrews obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an emphasis in race and ethnicity, sport, and social psychology.