Sports, Race, and Capitalism

Throughout the last century, Black athletes such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, and countless others have helped lead the way in pushing for social change. Today, we are reaching an unprecedented level of athlete activism. 

For instance, LeBron James has become extremely vocal about the injustice Black people face on a daily basis, and just three weeks ago, he helped create a program called ‘More Than A Vote’ which seeks to combat systemic, racist voter suppression. Sean Doolittle, who’s been outspoken on social issues and politics for many years, is leading a charge to protect the health and safety of MLB staff and players amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, athletes such as Kyrie Irving, Maya Moore, and Lou Williams are sitting out — or at least considering sitting out of — their sport in order to help advocate for social justice. 

As a result of so many big time athletes taking a public stance against injustice, we are headed towards an inevitable reckoning point at the intersection of sports and society. America’s system of capitalism is fully dependent on injustice and inequity, and until we overhaul our prevailing economic conditions, the oppression will never stop.

Capitalism has always had its inherent flaws, but with COVID-19, many Americans are seeing just how brutal it really is. An estimated 45 million Americans have lost their jobs since March, while billionaires have simultaneously increased their wealth by $584 billion. There are also significant racial disparities in terms of who’s struggling: Blacks and Latinos each have a hospitalization rate 4.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites, and they’re disproportionately affected by not being able to work from home.

American people, particularly people of color, are literally being forced to go through life-threatening health conditions at the expense of the economy. And unfortunately, unless something changes, this atrocity is going to carry over into the realm of sports as well.

Major leagues like the MLB, NBA, and NFL are planning to begin their seasons within the next month, despite the fact that the U.S. is averaging over 40,000 coronavirus cases each day, Florida and Texas have each surpassed over 200,000 cases, and in many parts of the country, things are still continuing with business as usual. Moreover, several players from the MLB, NBA, NFL, and NCAA have already tested positive for the virus. 

If sports come back this year, then the health and safety of players, coaches, and staff would undoubtedly be put in danger.

Thus, here lies the pivotal moment we’re reaching with sports. Athletes have an immense amount of power over our economy, as well as the heart and souls of millions of people. By not playing this upcoming season, given the dangerous conditions, they could put significant pressure on the government to act against injustice. In particular, this could have such an enormous impact because, today, Black athletes have a significant bargaining platform, with two of the biggest sports, basketball and football, containing majority Black athletes at both the collegiate and professional level.

Using their influence, Black athletes were able to pressure Drew Brees, who initially spoke out against kneeling for the anthem, to wholeheartedly change his mind on the issue. Mississippi State football star Kylin Hill helped sway the decision to remove the Confederate flag emblem from the Mississippi state flag after threatening not to play if they didn’t change it. Also, football players at Kansas State and UCLA have declared they’re not going to practice or play until their schools take steps to denounce racism and visibly ensure their health and safety. 

Black athletes and their allies are speaking out against injustice, and it’s working. These athletes are simply too integral to society and our way of life to be ignored. Hence, going forward, they have the potential to increasingly recognize that when they’re united, they have infinite amounts of potential for change. And, if they really want to, they have the ability to overpower the capitalist structure that’s plaguing sports and society.

In the NCAA, college athletes across the country could hold out from going to school, or join another institution that treats them more fairly and with more respect to their health and wellbeings. In the NBA and NFL, top players could forge an agreement to not play unless our government makes a serious commitment to ending police brutality once and for all. And, in the MLB, players could refuse to come back until the owners, most of whom are worth over $50 billion, guarantee minor league players a living wage. Athletes are still only scratching the surface of the tremendous influence they can have on society, because capitalism fundamentally needs athletes in order for sports to function, not vice versa. 

Ultimately, in the coming months, things are going to become even more rough. COVID-19 rates are likely to stay high, and it will not be safe for sports to return. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When the athlete community fully comes together as a unified force, the world will see that the bond between sports and humanity is simply too strong to overcome. And when that happens, justice will finally prevail. 

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