CHICAGO — Craig Hodges reveled in sharing history, current events and revolutionary ideas with his Chicago Bulls teammates and visiting opponents.
Many shook their heads, shrugged or told him he was on his own.
That included quick dismissals from Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson when the veteran Bulls guard approached them about boycotting Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. Hodges wanted to call attention to America’s racism in the wake of the high-profile Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King.
Hodges’ request was rejected. But he wasn’t deterred.
“It was one of those things where they’re all saying: ‘Nah, Hodge. Nah, man. That’s you. That’s you,’ “ he told the Tribune. “We saw Rodney King get beat. What more do we need? It’s like when they say they shot Jacob Blake in the back, but you need to review it? Some of it is right in your face.
“When I was standing up, I was like, ‘Man, you can’t see it?’ I wasn’t raised to be angry about the oppression, but I was raised to do something about it.”
Now Hodges is encouraged to see today’s athletes doing something about it.
Across leagues and sports, races and genders, players united this summer to protest racial inequalities for the widest work stoppage in U.S. sports history.
The Milwaukee Bucks refused to compete in Game 5 of their playoff series Aug. 26 in response to Kenosha police shooting Blake seven times in the back, leaving the Evanston native paralyzed from the waist down.
The NBA eventually canceled all three of the night’s playoff games as the strike spread through sports.
The Detroit Lions canceled scheduled practices, copied by nine other NFL teams in the following days.
The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds sat out, motivating MLB to postpone other games. The New York Mets and Miami Marlins left a Black Lives Matter shirt on home plate before exiting the field.
The WNBA — with the most vocal athletes among professional leagues — protested games and dedicated its season to Breonna Taylor, a Louisville, Ky., woman who was fatally shot in her sleep by police who entered the wrong home.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka refused to play in the Cincinnati Masters semifinals.
The NHL postponed games, and several college football teams have canceled practices, staged walkouts and organized marches on campuses.
“If I didn’t have (basketball) talent, I possibly would’ve been George Floyd,” said Bucks star George Hill, according to ESPN, explaining why he spearheaded the walkout amid protests over the Minneapolis police killing of Floyd in May. “It possibly would’ve been all my family members that got gunned down in the streets in Indianapolis.
“So, yes, this for me, it impacts me even more because I’ve seen the killing going on and I’ve seen the police brutality. I’ve seen that my cousin is lying in the street for an hour and a half before another police officer gets there. So I get emotional because it really hurts.”
Despite conservative media calls to “shut up and dribble,” political activism and sports always have been intertwined.
Jesse Owens helped destroy the very premise of Nazi white supremacy by winning four Olympic gold medals in 1936 in Berlin. Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson were examples used to dismantle the so-called logic behind Jim Crow laws.
Billie Jean King’s and later Venus Williams’ fight for equal pay highlighted the national gender wage gap. Colin Kaepernick’s quiet kneeling on the sideline forced a national conversation on police brutality.
So what’s unique about these protests in 2020?
The movement isn’t a single, radical voice.
This is a chorus.
“It’s something we haven’t seen before,” said Louis Moore, a professor of African American history and sports history at Grand Valley State in Michigan. “It’s impactful because it’s collective power. It means your colleague isn’t sitting out there on his own. If you’re Craig Hodges or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, you’re the only one. But when it’s everybody? You can’t get rid of everyone.”
So why now? Why everybody?
The moment has been brewing in recent years because of national activism and heightened in recent months after more high-profile police brutality cases caught on video. The COVID-19 pandemic added to a cauldron of emotions, especially as the virus exposes health-care inequalities.
The Black Lives Matter movement was born in 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home from from a convenience store in Florida. LeBron James and some of his Miami Heat teammates posted a photo of themselves wearing hoodies like Martin had on the night he was shot.
Athletes joined increasing calls for justice after police fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Five St. Louis Rams players ran onto the field with their hands up as a testament to Brown.
James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt with teammates during a pregame warm-up after Eric Garner was killed in a police chokehold in New York the same year.
In 2016, the WNBA fined players for joining the Black Lives Matter protests and had security guards walk out from a Minnesota Lynx game.
Players could have backed off after they witnessed Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, get insulted by President Donald Trump, villainized by NFL team owners and eventually ousted from the league. Instead, they’ve banded together.
“Athletes, like the rest of us, must organize and consolidate their power in this moment,” said Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, a Virginia Tech sociology professor. “We must demand true justice and not surface value changes. No more performativity, no more complacency. Sports are a microcosm of society; through sports we come to understand race, gender, class, sexuality, ability and more. What happens on the courts and in locker rooms happens in classrooms and roadways.”
In the NBA bubble near Orlando, Fla., and the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Fla., where teams are quarantined together to combat the spread of COVID-19, athletes mentioned intense emotions — frustration, grief, anger — as they watched from afar protests unfold on American streets this summer.
“It’s the same thing that was going on in the ‘60s,” said Moore, author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.” “You’re an athlete and you’re seeing people on the street. You could only watch five channels, and on the news, you see John Lewis is getting his head bashed in. If you were an athlete, you’re upset: ‘What can I do about this?’ “
He compared the disconnect in bubble life to Olympic athletes’ isolated training near Lake Tahoe in 1968 as the nation’s racial fault lines deepened after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and division over American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute on the medal stand at the Mexico City Games that year. They subsequently were banished from the Olympic Village and mostly vilified by the white press corps.
“There’s 100 riots post-Martin Luther King assassination, but that whole summer everyone is on edge,” Moore said. “If you’re training in Lake Tahoe, you’re taken away from that. There’s a certain sense you feel like you have to be there for your people, and the one way you feel like you can be there is to use your platform.”
Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet voiced that sense of helplessness 52 years later as he talked to reporters after the video of Blake’s shooting emerged. Wearing jerseys with NBA-approved slogans such as “equality” no longer seemed radical enough.
“You know, coming down here and making a choice to play was supposed to not be in vain, but it’s just starting to feel like everything we’re doing is going through the motions and nothing’s really changing,” VanVleet said. “We’re the ones with the microphones in our face. We’re the ones who have to make a stand.”
Unlike decades ago, athletes can use social media to amplify their messages and gauge feedback from fans and peers — without relying on traditional news outlets.
They also have a sense of permission to speak out because sports’ most famous superstar is at the forefront. Opinions don’t seem so controversial if James already has voiced them.
James essentially is doing for VanVleet and Hill what Jordan and Johnson didn’t do for Hodges.
“It’s a necessary safety net,” Hodges said. “If he can do it, why can’t I do it? This generation is more on civil rights and human rights. They’re vibrating on the human rights side rather than the monetary side.
“The NBA was strategic in their marketing (when I played). No players wanted to step on that, so they didn’t really want to speak to any issues. The issues were in front of me, as a person in the community who grew up in the civil rights age. Athletes and entertainers are not immune to tragedy.”
Athletes’ influence can go beyond shaping public opinion into shaping public policy — especially when their power comes in numbers.
New Orleans had been desperate for a professional franchise. The 1965 AFL All-Star Game was supposed to be an ideal opportunity to showcase the city as a welcoming haven instead of its reputation as a holdover of the antebellum South.
Segregation laws had been recently struck down. Just a few weeks before the All-Star Game, New Orleans hosted an integrated Sugar Bowl without public incident.
But when 21 Black AFL players arrived, they were greeted with venom. Taxis would not chauffeur. Night clubs declined entrance. Racial slurs were hurled.
The players had enough. Black players refused to compete at Tulane Stadium, forcing the game’s relocation to Houston. The incidents bruised the city’s reputation.
City officials changed taxi regulations and more stringently enforced civil rights violations.
As a reward, the NFL christened the New Orleans Saints in 1966.
There was an important driving factor involved there: money. It’s a lesson for today’s athlete activists who want substantive change.
“Sitting out of games, striking, has real power,” Brown said. “If athletes as a collective really do so, they will hurt people where it matters — in their pocketbooks, which is what really seems to drive actual change.”
In the billion-dollar sports complex, current athletes are using their leverage.
NBA players demanded tangible action before ending their holdout last week, and the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association announced a plan to use arenas as polling sites in the upcoming election.
A new flag design, without Confederate symbols, will be on the November ballot after Mississippi State and University of Mississippi athletes and coaches joined activists in pressuring state legislators. Mississippi State star running back Kylin Hill tweeted in June he would boycott the season if the state didn’t change the flag.
Illinois State’s athletes staged a nearly campus-wide boycott of practices — they weren’t scheduled to compete because of COVID-19 — after controversial remarks from the athletic director, and new policies are being installed.
Players’ protests and outspokenness has forced billionaire team owners to donate to grassroots community organizations. NFL players released a video asking for an explicit statement of commitment to anti-racism — and the league answered within 24 hours.
After banning protests of racial injustice during the national anthem in 2018, Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized and encouraged players to express themselves.
More than 1,400 current and former athletes and coaches signed a letter released by the Players Coalition supporting a bill that would eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement.
Hodges wonders what would happen if players vowed not to compete in cities that are notorious for police violence.
“When I look at the NBA players initially sitting out, that was the initial jackhammer to white supremacy racism,” he said. “We have to keep hammering at the tenets of it so it’s obsolete or so outdated and recognized as such that we can move forward.”
Hodges delivered a letter to President George H.W. Bush when the Bulls visited the White House after winning the 1991 NBA championship, asking him to consider the concerns of disenfranchised communities.
The Bulls released Hodges after the 1991-92 season, and his NBA career ended abruptly. Hodges maintains his political outspokenness cost him.
Of course, today’s athletes have faced backlash too.
Former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher criticized NBA players, noting former Packers quarterback Brett Favre played after his father died. He also liked an Instagram meme praising the 17-year-old from Antioch who fatally shot two people and wounded a third at protests in Kenosha.
Miami-Dade County officials rejected the NBA proposal of a voting site at American Airlines Arena.
President Trump, an especially vocal critic of player protests, called the NBA “like a political organization — and that’s not a good thing … for sports or for the country.”
His senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, called the boycott a “luxury” for NBA players to “take a night off from work.” Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, said they were “absurd and silly,” and he added, “If they want to protest, I don’t think we care.”
Hodges doesn’t expect athletes to be ousted from their leagues over those critiques. He sees more people listening to today’s athletes.
He senses a change.
“This is just a scratch of the surface of what is necessary right now,” Hodges said. “There’s mayhem, death and disease right now. But within that, there’s a light coming out, and that’s the redemption of our people.”
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