Wojo: Sports figures speak the sad truth: We are not united, after all

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit – How did we get here in America? How did we become so divided along so many lines – racial, cultural, political, socio-economic, religious?

The honest response: We’ve always been here.

That’s the dispiriting reality after one of the saddest weeks in American history. It began last Monday with the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, his final breaths squeezed out by a despicable man masquerading as a police officer, captured in a nine-minute video in which Floyd desperately narrated his own death, ending with, “Please, I can’t breathe.”

Dwane Casey

Three other white cops stood around as bystanders pleaded, while wielding the most-reliable vehicle of justice, the cell phone camera. Only one officer has been arrested, and that was after nights of protest in Minneapolis, which sparked demonstrations and riots in almost every major city in the country, including Detroit.

That’s what started it this time, which came shortly after the last time, the shooting death of black Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, or the time before that, or before that. Or the next time.

If we acknowledge a nation that began with slavery and has spent 200 years slowly, painfully trying to dilute (and sometimes deny) its effects, still has a long way to go, who will lead the way? Not our politicians, obviously. Not with the reckless rhetoric from the White House and the federal government, where distracting and labeling and blaming always take precedence. Not from the leaders in Minnesota, which has a sordid history of tepid response to police brutality.

Some narrow-minded nitwits once demanded athletes “stay in your lane,” “shut up and dribble” and “stick to sports.” Those sentiments are so outdated, they’re even more laughable today. If you have a platform – and sports figures possess some of the most prominent – now would be the time to use it, in a responsible way.

While civil-rights laws, hate-crime prosecutions and hiring regulations have helped punish (although not prevent) racism, it very much remains an issue as personal as it is systemic. Justice often is viewed through the prism of color, through life’s experiences.

Even the most famous and wealthy black people experience it, and it’s important they talk about it, plainly and passionately. White celebrities should be heard too, and many in sports are speaking, from J.J. Watt to Joe Burrow to Carson Wentz. Sports are idled right now, but voices aren’t. Those alleged sacred lanes and lines that can’t be crossed? Words intended to be insightful, not inciting, can help.

Another unseen disease

In Atlanta on Saturday, Celtics star Jaylen Brown marched peacefully with protesters after driving 15 hours from Boston. His message, delivered in an Instagram video: “Being a bystander is no longer acceptable. If you and your friends are around or are witnesses to cultural biases, micro-aggressions, subtle acts of racism, actual racism etc., and you don’t speak up on it or do something about it, you are part of the problem.”

Jaylen Brown

Pistons coach Dwane Casey, 63, led the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2005-07 and grew up in Kentucky, and can speak with gravity and purpose.

“Fifty-four years ago, I was an eight-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky when the schools were desegregated,” Casey wrote in a statement. “I walked into a white school where I was not wanted nor welcomed. At that time there were no cell phones to record my treatment, no cable news stations with 24/7 coverage, no social media to record the reality of the situation or offer support nor condemnation. But I can remember exactly how I felt as an eight-year-old child. I felt helpless. I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood. As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings - helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.”

It’s astonishing, really, that we’ve spent five months battling an insidious, unseen virus, yet rarely take dramatic measures to battle the insidious, oft-seen disease of racism. Of course the looting is appalling, but to plop all the law-breakers into the same convenient bin – as both sides already are doing – is just lazy. It’s always left or right in America, and that’s the problem. The only way to fix it is to listen, enlighten and understand each other, which can’t happen if the speakers aren’t people you trust.

I’m sometimes reluctant to add to the volume in the absence of personal experiences, although for whites, that can be a cop-out. And black people should not ignore well-meaning sentiments from any segment of society.

As often happens, people dutifully express outrage, and then everyone retreats to their respective corners, with minimal change. I believe just as many whites as blacks are disgusted by the violence – by the police and against the police – and the horrific destruction, and the racial composition of the demonstrations is notably mixed. I believe thousands of good cops are disgusted too.

All in this together?

We’re all in this together, right? That’s what we’ve heard as the virus has raged, then you witness scenes from Los Angeles to New York to Indianapolis to Atlanta to pretty much everywhere. You see police officers dragged through the streets in Chicago and you’re sickened. You see idiots smashing windows and stealing property and you wonder who raised them, or taught them about life.

You see courageous media and law enforcement members trying to do their jobs, getting attacked by mobs that have more sinister agendas than justice for George Floyd. President Trump’s portrayal of the media as an enemy of the state is repulsive and irresponsible. Anarchy and chaos are political tools too, and they flourish in a leadership void.

All in this together? Everything becomes a slogan easily co-opted and corrupted, from MAGA to Black Lives Matter. Go ahead, chant and shout, then maybe do something productive. Sports figures, entertainers, regular folk, all have been issuing statements and posting videos. The larger the platform, the louder the message, the bigger the responsibility.

“I believe with education, justice, acceptance and love, we can evoke real change,” Michigan State football coach Mel Tucker said. “We must. John F. Kennedy said, ‘Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.’ As a people, let us make our purpose and direction to stop the violence and come together to make our country a better and safer place for our children.”

There’s promise in youth, although let’s see how many of those young protesters show up at the polls. Change doesn’t automatically come from voting out the bad, because there’s no guarantee you’re voting in the good. Change comes from education and compassion. The coronavirus may be randomly contracted, but racism is purposely learned.

LeBron James posted on Instagram recently two pictures side by side. One was Colin Kaepernick kneeling on a football field. The other was fired cop Derek Chauvin kneeling on a human neck. Jarring? Oh yes. Uniting? Probably not. Thought-provoking? You hope.

The NFL, pushed by public backlash, ended Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against police brutality. His football career effectively ended too. 

Four years later, not much has changed. Except now there’s smoke, disease and tear gas in the air, and masks on the faces, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski