Tim Whyte | Sports and Protests in the Bubble

Tim Whyte

About two months into the COVID-19 crisis, I was surfing my usual sports channels. I’m a sports fan. I have my favorites — hockey, football and motorsports, but I’ll also tune in for basketball, baseball, soccer and more, from time to time. 

Once the COVID shutdown hit, live sports was one of the biggest things I missed — hence, on that day in May, when I was surfing the channels, I stumbled upon the “World Stone Skimming Championships.”

Yes. Apparently, it’s a thing. And yes, I was that desperate. 

I watched. I was impressed by their ability to get a flat rock to skip dozens of times before finally falling into the water. I even developed a favorite competitor or two until it sunk in: Get ahold of yourself, man. You’re watching people throw rocks into a lake. And you’ve taken a rooting interest. You are one sick cowpoke.

The point? I look to sports for entertainment, first and foremost. Sports provide a welcome relief from more serious matters, an escape, and generally harmless action and conflict. I don’t look to sports for politics. I can get that literally everywhere else. 

But in the past week, I’ve also come to realize I am not the “shut up and dribble” guy, either.

Athletes in multiple sports have protested, and games in “the bubble” were canceled or postponed, after a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down.

I’ve been wrestling this week with the role of sports in all of this, as a lot of people have. 

More broadly, people staked out their spots in one of two typical all-or-nothing camps:

Camp 1: The officer shot an unarmed Black man in the back, in cold blood. Cops are recklessly hunting Black people.

Camp 2: Defend the Blue Line. Blake was a criminal who resisted arrest on a domestic violence call. He got shot not because he was Black, but because he didn’t comply with police instructions and was reaching for that knife on the floorboard of his car. 

Sometimes I feel like I am alone in the center. I think the circumstances are pertinent — the cops didn’t roll up and immediately jump to lethal force. Blake did resist, and if he had complied, he would not have been shot. But I also can’t defend pumping seven rounds into the guy’s back when he did not appear to be an immediate threat. Could he have become a threat a moment later? Maybe. I hate second-guessing split-second decisions, and I’m no expert (most of us aren’t) but my layman’s opinion is this was not a justified shooting.

I think Camp 1, which includes most of the media, rushes to judgment and often omits other aspects of the story — such as the fact that the officers had already tried to physically subdue Blake, and he was having none of it. They tased him. It didn’t work. He attempted to get to the driver’s side of his car, where he had a knife. These factors may not justify the shooting — in my opinion they don’t — but they are relevant, and almost uniformly omitted. Hence, much of the public is left to make an uninformed decision that fits a prescribed narrative.

On the flip side, I think Camp 2 blindly justifies everything police do, and is willfully ignorant to the fact that, yes, some cops treat Black suspects differently. 

Not all. Most cops do their jobs the right way and sincerely desire to protect the communities they serve. But there are enough of these incidents on record to indicate that it’s a problem, and reasonable changes in police training and methods are warranted.

Most of the media, and most of pro sports, are in Camp 1. The other pertinent factors — the taser, the physical resistance, the knife — are glossed over and ignored. The protesters hit the streets, the rioters follow them, then the idiot vigilantes follow THEM (ahem, Kyle Rittenhouse), and next thing you know property is destroyed and more people needlessly die. 

Athletes, especially Black athletes, are fed up with it all, as much of the public is. And the athletes have a powerful platform most of us don’t have. They have the rapt attention of fans, team owners, decision makers. They are millionaires who have the ability to influence billionaires and others in power. They have been using that platform in the “bubble,” not only by talking to a captive media audience every day, but also, for example, by wearing social justice messages on their jerseys, as the NBA has allowed them to do. 

That’s the right of the NBA to decide. If the league wanted to say no, it could. Once the league has cleared it, it’s the right of the player to use the opportunity, or not. 

It’s worth noting, though, that in sports media and on the backs of those jerseys, there are no messages from a conservative point of view. Would an athlete be allowed to wear “blue lives matter” on the back of his jersey? Respect the flag? What about an anti-abortion message? Of course not. None of those would fly. Social and political messages are allowed, but only so long as they are the “right” ones. Free speech is great, so long as it’s the “correct” speech. 

If you watch and listen to ESPN or any other sports media, when was the last time you heard someone express a viewpoint that’s not in lockstep with “progressive” viewpoints? Anyone who does soon finds themselves out of a job. 

Agree or disagree, the First Amendment should apply to everyone.

All that being said, I think the athletes and leagues have done a good job of using their platforms this week, opposing racism and seeking change. Canceling or postponing games has not been something they have taken lightly — NBA players met and debated Wednesday night and into the wee hours of Thursday morning — but they felt it was an important, somber decision. It spread from the NBA and WNBA to include baseball, hockey, tennis, soccer, golf — pretty much the gamut of mainstream sports, all suspending action Thursday and Friday.

Some of the interviews with athletes and coaches (notably, Clippers coach Doc Rivers) have been quite emotional. They are sincere in their concern, and they should be heard, and listened to. The last thing anyone should do is tell them to shut up and dribble. 

They decided to continue their seasons after a two-day pause. It was probably the right stroke, sending the message without jeopardizing their seasons, which would diminish their platform.

Will things get better soon? No one can really “know.” I do hope we can get to the point where pro athletes don’t feel the need to protest, where ESPN focuses more on what happens on the field or the court than politics and social justice, and, on a selfish and much less serious note, where I might see the World Stone Skimming Championships on the tube and keep moving past it, because there’s something better to watch.

People throwing rocks into a lake. Really. What was I thinking?

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal.

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