It will be interesting to see what happens on Sunday during an otherwise meaningless game between Washington and St Louis in the nation’s capital.
In August, some Washington players were the first in the NFL to protest publicly the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. With residents and the police in a tense standoff in Ferguson’s streets over the shooting of Michael Brown, safety Ryan Clark and several other Washington players emerged from the stadium tunnel during introductions for a pre-season game with their hands raised and palms forward. The “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture was a show of solidarity with protesters.
On Sunday, days after a grand jury declined to indict the officer, five Rams players entered the field for a game making the same hands-up gesture, another show of solidarity after a new round of protests.
The St Louis Police Officers Association immediately called for the players involved to be disciplined, and for the team and the NFL to apologize.
The association condemned the display, saying it was “profoundly disappointed” with the Rams players “who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence” from a grand jury that did not indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
The players did not ignore mountains of evidence; they merely disagreed with the decision.
One of them, receiver Kenny Britt, said: “I don’t want the people in the community to feel like we turned a blind eye to it.”
Asked what he hoped his actions would accomplish, Britt said: “What would I like to see happen? Change in America.”
In August, the Washington players who demonstrated were expressing concern that justice would not be served. On Sunday in St Louis, the Rams players, like the demonstrators, were frustrated because, in their view, justice had not been served. And it is right that neither the NFL nor the Rams will fine or discipline any of them.
Sports is no longer an intersection of US culture, but a peril-filled superhighway. Professional and top-tier college football and basketball are wildly popular industries dominated — for the moment — by young African-American athletes.
Teams must do a balancing act as never before to facilitate a relationship between those athletes and the fans and sponsors who would rather see than hear them. And there are athletes who prefer to be seen solely as football players, agnostic on social issues.
Hopefully, the action of the St Louis and Washington players will embolden other athletes to use their visibility to shed light on sensitive issues.
Rather than being silenced by money, many young athletes have been empowered to speak up. Last season, top NBA players loudly protested the continued presence in the league of Donald Sterling, whose privately taped racist comments led to his ouster as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. In 2012, some high-profile NBA players wore hoodies in the aftermath of the killing of another black teenager, Trayvon Martin.
In protesting the actions of the police in St Louis, the five Rams players tapped into concerns that go beyond the black community. Increasing numbers of citizens have expressed concerned about their liberty being threatened by the military mindset and “shoot first, ask questions later” tactics of a police force becoming increasingly militarized with weapons and equipment.
Like it or not, the players’ brief demonstration struck a much needed chord.
However, given the reaction in St Louis, it is likely that the Rams players, and players throughout the NFL, are finished with demonstrations.
It certainly would be stunning to see another one from Washington’s players. Any franchise that insists on keeping its racist nickname will probably not tolerate any more demonstrations against perceived racism by its players. Spike the ball after a touchdown, do a jig in the end zone, but no political demonstrations.
On Monday, Rams coach Jeff Fisher addressed the media and spoke for most coaches — and most players, for that matter — when he said he preferred to compartmentalize politics and sports.
Fisher wants to keep politics and social issues separate. Fans argue that they go to athletic events to escape.
However, in a society increasingly defined by violence and combustible social issues, there is no escape.
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