How athletes and leagues used their platforms to inspire change during an unprecedented 2020 season

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To put it bluntly, 2020 has been an unprecedented year for society. Calling it unprecedented would still be a massive understatement as the world has encountered so much hardship this year. In a year that was already going to be chaotic, given that it was an election year in the United States, the dial for chaos was turned up a great deal starting in March, when much of the world was forced to enter lockdown due to the emergence of an incredibly contagious disease. 

Furthermore, America saw its country further divided and its centuries long issue of equality and social injustice had hit a boiling point after the sickening footage, seen by many, of several Black men being shot and/or killed by law enforcement this past summer. 

While sports have traditionally been viewed as an escape or a distraction from pressing social and political issues, it has no longer remained like that during this unusual year. All be it long overdue, sports leagues, prominent commissioners, top athletes and stakeholders embarked on initiatives to inspire social change this past season. A far cry from four years ago, when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before many NFL games. 

Kaepernick was eventually let go by the team and strongly renounced by some of his teammates, many of his fans and most importantly the commissioner itself as well as President Donald Trump who had just won the election during Kaepernick’s protest. Kaepernick had consistently said in 2016 and 2017 that the kneeling was a direct protest in order to fight for social justice and liberty. 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said at the time. 

“There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, to be brought to life, and we need to fix those,” he said further. 

As numerous less talented Quarterbacks revolve around the 32 NFL team’s in the past four years, Kaepernick has remained unsigned although stating his intent to return to the field.  Many reports have stated that NFL front offices do not want to deal with Kaepernick and some of the baggage that he brings. 

The situation with Kaepernick most certainly begs the question to why sports leagues have not only ignored but discouraged social justice and equality change for so long? It begs the question as to what has changed in the past four years and if the players and leagues together are committed to these initiatives? Undoubtedly however, the past four years and this year should end the mantra that athletes should strictly, “stick to sports.” 

While social inequality and racism had remained prevalent in the United States for many years, sports have always stayed silent on the issue. This year was much different as the NBA displayed, “Black Lives Matter” on the court for every one of their games and allowed their players to pick from a list of social justice messages that would be inscribed on their jersey. The NHL created the diversity alliance for African American hockey players, while each of NFL players are displaying a name on their helmet to depict the need for social change. In addition, kneeling for the national anthem became the norm. Before every MLS match, both of the teams would take a knee. During the WNBA season, the majority of players kneeled during the anthem. Furthermore, athletes and coaches such as Lebron James, Gregg Popovich, Matt Dumba, among many others made bold statements about the current social and political landscape in America. 

The push for change and social justice had reached a tipping point in America this summer and the divide had never been so wide. During a violent summer of protests turned into riots, and videos of black Americans being targeted, not all that different from the landscape in 2015 and 2016 when Kaepernick knelt. However, the big difference here was athletes and coaches not staying silent and this was no more prevalent than after the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin this past August. 

The players decided to revolt against their leagues. The NBA led the way for this protest as the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court in their playoff matchup against the Orlando Magic. This sparked a chain effect as the MLB, NHL, MLS and WNBA all cancelled ensuing games for the next two days. In the NBA, there was serious doubt that the playoffs would be restarted as the players met a couple of times with the owners and were pushing for significant change. The referees and some players had marched around the ESPN Orlando bubble that they were staying at and among three days of debate, the league and players had decided to resume the playoffs. The players were pleased with their action leading to a conversation with the Wisconsin Governor and urged that the state legislature reconvene to address the issues of the Jacob Blake shooting and the justice system as a whole. 

The NHL, NBA, MLB and WNBA have all finishes their seasons after an incredible 2020 that included two different shutdowns, including the major lockdown when the pandemic first emerged. The NFL and MLS continue their season with initiatives towards social change and equality. 

The OUA conference which the Golden Hawks are a member of have also made strides in fighting towards equality as they started the BBI task force this past summer. The black, biracial and indigenous task force will focus on making progress towards a more inclusive and diverse sports scene. 

Tommy Bringi, Linebacker of Laurier’s football team is a member of that task force and is committed on using his platform to bring change. Head football Coach, Michael Faulds, has often referred to his players as the “most diverse locker room across the country.” 

Kaepernick had started a trend four years ago when he first knelt. Rioting and racism were occurring and Kaepernick, although he may have lost his job because of it, could not simply stay silent. What has changed is the sheer number of athletes speaking out on the issues and the growing support of league executives and owners also speaking out and making an attempt to understand their players. Although long overdue, the “stick to sports” motto which has so commonly been attached to athletes seems to have finally been erased.

With an incredibly consequential election and a possible change looming for the United States, that change itself is a massive step towards sports players using their platform to enact positive change.

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