Asian American athletes condemn racism stemming from COVID-19 pandemic
Pandemic-driven rises in anti-Asian racism are so pronounced that in an American Journal of Public Health article, psychiatrist Justin A. Chen, MD, MPH, and his coauthors describe it as a “secondary contagion” threatening this population. By year’s end, the FBI announces there was a 73-percent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans in 2020. Early on in the outbreak, Asian American athletes like Natalie Chou, Katelyn Ohashi, Jeremy Lin and Taylor Rapp condemn the rising racism. Said Lin, “For me, I felt like I had to come out and say something. To not feel welcome, or feel safe physically, is just a different level. That’s something that I really want to make sure I took a stance on.”
In the aftermath of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, police murder George Floyd, sparking national reckoning on race
Two months after Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, video shows four Minneapolis officers involved in the murder of the 46-year-old Floyd. Officer Derek Chauvin pins Floyd to the ground, pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd died during the act of police brutality, sparking protests throughout the world. It’s estimated as many as 26 million Americans participate in demonstrations following his murder.
Athletes join protests, help lead movement for racial equity
Two months after Louisville police kill Breonna Taylor and less than a month after video showing Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is publicly released, multiple athletes at all levels of sport take part in nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. Former Texans coach Bill O’Brien and star player J.J. Watt march in Houston, where Floyd was raised and is eventually laid to rest. The Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drives 15 hours to protest in Atlanta, where the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon speaks about his grandfather marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Trae Young also join protests, and Michael Jordan’s Jordan brand announces a 10-year, $100 million donation to organizations fighting racism. Tennis star Coco Gauff, at 16 years old, speaks at a protest in Florida, and college athletes, including the Clemson football team pictured here, lead protests on campus and march through towns. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad marches in Los Angeles, as does Miami Heat assistant Caron Butler. Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players make statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protests in Dallas and Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Jonathan Toews meets with activists in Chicago. MLB players such as Aaron Judge, Dexter Fowler, Bryce Harper and C.C. Sabathia speak out through various platforms. Minnesota Timberwolves stars Karl Anthony-Towns and Josh Okogie help lead protests in Minneapolis and in the coming days the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx host a RISE Critical Conversation with the organization, city mayor and law enforcement to discuss next steps.
NFL stars share video demanding league condemns racism and support player protests
In the passionate video, players such as Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Saquon Barkley, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins, among others, relay how not only could they have been George Floyd, but they are Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner and the many other Black men, women and children killed. They also demand the NFL state that it condemns “racism and the systemic oppression of black people,” admit it was wrong to silence players from peacefully protesting and believe black lives matter. The following day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video and statement, saying those exact words: “We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.” Goodell later said he wants to be part of the much-needed change in America, and apologized to Colin Kaepernick for the league’s handling of his protests in 2016.
To see the video, click here.
WNBA players opt out of season to focus on social justice
On June 18, two-time WNBA champion Renee Montgomery tweeted she would opt out of the WNBA season to focus on social justice issues, including voter rights and helping HBCU Morris Brown College’s $5 million fundraising campaign to regain its accreditation. (Its accreditation application was accepted in November.) Natasha Cloud would opt out a few days later.
Softball players quit team, start new one after GM posts anti-kneeling tweet
Connie May, the team general manager for the Scrap Yard Dawgs, an independent professional softball team in Texas, posted a picture before the game of players standing for the national anthem and celebrated it with a tweet tagging Donald Trump. The coaches and players, many who will represent the U.S. at the 2021 Olympics, felt May used them as political pawns, and as a result they quit the team and started a separate one without May. Kelsey Stewart, one of the handful of Black players on the Scrap Yard Dawgs and Olympic team, said on Twitter, “I AM HURT … I am disgusted … as a BLACK softball player I DO NOT … DO NOT stand with a statement like this … if you didn’t understand racism and what was going on the last month. This … THIS IS IT. This is EXACTLY what we’ve been trying to change.”
NASCAR rallies behind Bubba Wallace after a noose is found in his stall
Less than two weeks after NASCAR bans the Confederate flag after comments from Wallace, the only Black driver in NASCAR’s top circuit, a noose is found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on June 21. NASCAR stands behind Wallace, releasing a statement saying it is “outraged” and launches an immediate investigation in collaboration with the FBI. The following day, moments before the Talladega race and with Wallace in his car, the 39 other drivers and their crews march down pit road as they push his car to the front of the line. When the group reached the front line, Wallace climbs out of his car and began crying. In the days after the race, the investigation uncovers the rope was tied as a noose but wasn’t targeted at Wallace as it had been there since at least the previous year. In 2021, Wallace returns to Talladega to capture his first win.
Kylin Hill prompts change to Mississippi’s state flag
Hill, a star running back for Mississippi State, tweeted “Either change the flag or I won’t be representing this State anymore & I meant that .. I’m tired.” Days earlier, the Southeastern Conference and NCAA announced there would be no postseason or championship events in the state until the Confederate emblem was removed from the state flag. On June 28, the state legislature passed a bill removing the flag and laying the ground for a new design.
Women’s soccer players wear Black Lives Matters shirts
During the inaugural game of the NWSL Challenge Cup, players wore shirts that read Black Lives Matter and knelt during the national anthem, as many players would do in the games that followed. Five months later in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s return game after a 261-day hiatus, the team wore warm-up jackets with the words Black Lives Matter on the front, and nearly every member of the team took a knee during the national anthem. “We love our country, and it is a true honor to represent America. It is also our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms that our country was founded on extend to everyone,” said a statement team members shared before the game.
WNBA players, WNBPA call for removal of U.S. senator Kelly Loeffler as Atlanta Dream owner
Loeffler, a Republican senator from Georgia, writes a letter to the WNBA commissioner “emphatically opposing” the league’s support of the “Black Lives Matter and “Say Her Name” movement. The Atlanta Dream release their own statement from their players that states “Black lives matter. We are the women of the Atlanta Dream. We are women who support a movement. We are strong and we are fearless. We offer a voice to the voiceless. Our team is united in the Movement for Black Lives. It’s not extreme to demand change after centuries of inequality. This is not a political statement. This is a statement of humanity.” Dream and WNBA players go on to endorse a Loeffler challenger for her Senate seat, Raphael Warnock. Research from the Washington Post indicated the WNBA players’ support for Warnock turned the tides in the Senate race, and Warnock eventually defeats Loeffler in a January runoff to win her seat.
Nearly 200 MLS players protest racial injustice, standing silent for 8 minutes and 46 seconds
At the MLS is Back tournament at Disney World – signaling the return of major professional men’s team sports in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic began – nearly 200 players took the field for an 8-minute, 46-second moment of silence to protest racial injustice. Players wore black T-shirts, black gloves and black facemasks emblazoned with Black Lives Matter. The shirts had varying slogans that included Black And Proud, Silence Is Violence and Black All The Time. The players walked toward midfield, raised their right arms one at a time and held the pose so long that some could be seen stretching fatigued muscles afterward.
Julian Edelman connects with DeSean Jackson after anti-Semitic remarks
On July 7, Jackson posts the words of the widely condemned anti-Semitic and homophobic leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, and a falsely attributed anti-Semitic quote by Adolf Hitler. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, then posts an Instagram message to Jackson to coordinate a moment to learn from each other: Edelman will take him to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Jackson will take him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The two agree to connect in the offseason to “use our experiences to educate one another and grow together.”
University of Texas makes sweeping changes following unified movement from student-athletes
In June, close to 40 student-athletes across seven sports within Texas Athletics wrote a two-page letter to the administration requesting better support for Black athletes and students, to honor former Black athletes at the school, remove statues or the names of buildings with Confederate or racist ties and the retirement of the song “Eyes of Texas.” In July, the school agreed to many of those changes and in November unveiled a new statue of Julius Whittier, the Longhorns’ first Black letterman, but the school did not end the “Eyes of Texas” tradition. Texas’ decision was part of a summer of sweeping changes within college athletics.
NFL’s Washington club announces retirement of racist team name and logo; MLB’s Cleveland club does the same.
Dozens of Native American groups, tribal nations, national tribal organizations, individuals and civil rights group have protested Washington’s 87-year-old team mascot and asked for its removal dating back more than a half-century. Washington owner Dan Snyder said he would never change the logo and team name – a racist slur toward Native Americans – but corporate pressure in 2020 forces him to retire them. Top team sponsor FedEx says it will terminate its stadium naming rights deal, worth an additional $45 million, if Snyder did not change the team name. Other sponsors, including PepsiCo, Nike and Bank of America, make similar demands. Since known as the Washington Football Team, the club on February 2, 2022 officially becomes the Washington Commanders. In 2018, MLB’s Cleveland club, facing similar backlash for its team name and mascot, announces it will retire its “Chief Wahoo” logo for the 2019 season, and in December 2020 says it will change the team’s nickname for the 2022 season. In July 2021, they reveal their new name, the Cleveland Guardians.
Kings, RISE and When We All Vote relaunch “Rally the Vote”
The Sacramento Kings, in partnership with RISE and When We All Vote, re-launched Rally the Vote, a first-of-its-kind nonpartisan coalition of professional sports franchises focused on getting fans to register to vote and participate in elections. Starting with 20 teams in August, the coalition expanded to more than 50 organizations across the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, MLL, MLS, WNBA and NWSL by Election Day.
Jason Wright, Danita Johnson, Kim Ng and Dany Garcia break barriers across leagues
The Washington Football Team hired Wright, a former NFL running back, as team president, making him the first Black person to hold that position in the NFL’s 100-year history. Wright was named Sports Business Journal’s “Best Hire of 2020.” In December, Johnson became the first Black woman or man to be hired as an MLS team president when D.C. United hired her as president of business operations. She previously was president and COO of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. In November, the Marlins hired Ng as the team’s general manager, making her the first woman to hold that position. Ng was MLB’s senior vice president of baseball operations for the past nine years and the highest-ranking Asian American female baseball executive. In August, Garcia became the first woman to own a professional sports league. Garcia, entertainer Dwayne Johnson and a private equity firm puchased the XFL, and Johnson wrote that Garcia was the “architect” behind the deal.
Athletes strike across sports, demanding justice and accountability after police shoot Jacob Blake
On Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a white police officer shot Blake, who is Black, seven times in the back as he opened the door of his car, where his kids were sitting in at the time. After a video of the shooting went public and more shootings occur during local protests, the Milwaukee Bucks, who play about 60 miles from Kenosha, refuse to take the court for Game 5 of their first-round playoff series. The team’s statement reads, in part, “Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.” Their opponent, the Orlando Magic, refused to play as well, forgoing a forfeit despite trailing in the series. The NBA would postpone its remaining games that day through Aug. 28. In the WNBA on Aug. 26, the Washington Mystics’ players wore white shirts with a letter each to spell Blake’s name on the front. On the backs were seven bullet holes. Players across teams would kneel and link arms during the national anthem before walking off the court. Elsewhere, the Detroit Lions canceled their practice on Aug. 25 and instead players discussed measures they could take and publicly advocated for change. On Aug. 27., nine other NFL teams canceled football activities, as did multiple college football teams. In MLB on Aug. 26, the Brewers and Reds game was called as players striked, and two games would later be postponed. The NHL postponed its playoff games on Aug. 27 and 28. MLS canceled five games as players walked off the pitch, and Naomi Osaka announced she was skipping her Aug. 26 tennis semifinal in protest.
Mets, Marlins players leave Black Lives Matters shirt on home plate
The New York Mets, led out of the dugout by Black player Dominic Smith, and the Miami Marlins took the field for their Aug. 27 game and moments after the leadoff hitter entered the batter’s box, the teams removed their hats and held a 42-second moment of silence. The players and coaches jointly walked off before a pitch was thrown on the eve of the day MLB would celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. Marlins center fielder Lewis Brinson placed a Black Lives Matter T-shirt on home plate in a poignant display as the teams left the field. “The words on the shirt speak for themselves, just having it in the center of everything, just knowing that both teams are unified, and that we agreed to do this,” he said. “And it was the right thing to do.”
Naomi Osaka wins US Open while honoring Black victims of police brutality or racist violence
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father is Haitian, won all seven of her 2020 US Open matches to capture her third grand slam title. As part of each match, she wears a mask with the name of a Black man, woman or child who died from police brutality or violence rooted in racism. The names: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
LeBron James helps recruit more than 40,000 poll workers
As part of James’ More Than a Vote, which he started in June with other Black athletes and entertainers to protect African Americans’ voting rights, James helped recruit more than 40,000 poll workers in a year when many states risked having an insufficient number of workers because of the pandemic. James and his group also helped restore voting rights and pay necessary fines for formerly incarcerated people.
Athletes, teams and open sporting venues help set record U.S. voter turnout
Athletes, leagues and organizations make voting and civic engagement one of its top social justice initiatives, and across sports, voter education and registration efforts take place. RISE holds almost 90 voter education and registration sessions for professional teams and collegiate athletics departments leading up to Election Day, and roughly 70 sports venues open their doors as polling sites throughout the process, part of an effort that began years ago that included the work of RISE board members Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and former NFL executive Scott Pioli. Said Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State: “There is no question that seeing the athletes and the leaders in athletics made a huge difference in the enthusiasm.” After the 2020 election, USA Today research indicates nearly 300,000 Americans voted in sports venues that election cycle.
U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee defies IOC rule and ends ban on athlete protests
The International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 has long banned protests at the Olympics, but it was the U.S. committee that sent track & field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos home from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when the two raised their fists to protest racial injustice during their medal ceremony. Nothing had changed in 2019, when the U.S.O.P.C reprimanded hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for protesting on the medals stand at the Pan American Games. However, in December 2020 the U.S.O.P.C. announced it would no longer punish athletes who participate in peaceful protests, despite the IOC refusing to end Rule 50. The American federation’s decision comes at the recommendation of the athlete-led Team USA Council on Racial and Social Justice.
Jackson He achieves college football first
On Dec. 11, Arizona State football player Jackson He scored a touchdown, which Arizona State said was the first touchdown by a Chinese-born player in FBS history. The Sun Devils have celebrated his heritage by putting He’s name in Chinese on the back of his jersey.