American sports leagues lost
the game of human rights

What do Colin Kaepernick, Enes Kanter and Bubba Wallace — three professional athletes at the top of their game — have in common? Discrimination. How is it that sports, an activity that emphasizes the bond between players as so important to achieving victory, lost so badly in the game of human rights for all of them?

The three athletes are part of the American sport leagues: the NFL, NBA and NASCAR, respectively. And each of them has suffered a lack of protection from their league as their individual rights were breached. 

Sport, a team practice, suddenly became a mirror for public opinion and the personal experience of discrimination that takes place regularly on the streets of America — and that now is spreading through different sport contexts.

The most famous case, probably, is that of Kaepernick, which began in 2017. More than most anyone else, Kaepernick showed his willingness to be a leader in human right activism through sports. In the last season he played, in 2016, he decided first to sit and then to kneel for the national anthem, in order to raise awareness of the discrimination experienced regularly by African-Americans. In particular, he took a stand against police brutality and racial injustice.

His act was rapidly labeled as disrespectful towards the flag and the country. Some, however, even inferred that because his decision followed a severe injury, he took on this mission in order to excuse his physical form and readiness on the field.

In reality, Kaepernick has risked his career. He’s been blackballed by the NFL since 2017, without being able to find a spot with any team since that time.

Now, this is curious. As the Black Lives Matter movement has gathered momentum after the murder of George Floyd, Kaepernick has once again become relevant, and is back on the NFL market.

The killing of George Floyd opened the eyes of many, and it quite possibly saved Kaepernick’s career. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback is now being seen as a pioneer in human rights activism in the field of sports. And new opportunities on the NFL market are on the way for him. If it were not for the recent events, there likely would have been little chance for team owners and staff to take a U-turn on the matter.

In fact, even with high profile players such as Odell Beckham and Lebron James supporting Colin and the cause, sport leagues and most of the clubs showed no leadership nor willingness to support him. They simply followed public opinion. They gave no particular support to BLM until a large part of the public had shifted their opinion. Kaepernick is now seen as prescient and a model for change. 

But the silence of some, and the criticism voiced by others, cannot easily be forgiven or forgotten. Although Kaepernick’s willingness to act has resulted in a positive change of mind for many people (as with Drew Brees), there are still people who cannot digest kneeling in front of the flag. It seems that some, including POTUS Donald Trump, cannot stomach the fight for equality. Trump did not miss the opportunity to stand with Brees’ initial statement, and seemed discouraged as Brees rethought and publicly apologized for not having been able to understand the reasons behind the kneeling.

Now, Kaepernick is no longer alone. Many athletes — especially those from the NBA, like Lebron James — are fighting now for equality. That is the case with Bubba Wallace, the only African-American driver of the particularly ultra-conservative racing circuit. The world of NASCAR started trembling right after the George Floyd events. Subsequent to the civil mobilizations, protests and riots in America, NASCAR decided to ban the Confederate flag in the stands and in the perimeter of the circuit.

Bubba Wallace’s car, with “Black Lives Matter” stencil

The NASCAR decision is surely astonishing, just as it is shocking to still have to talk about Confederate flags in 2020. Nevertheless, the decision has displeased most of the fans, and some have decided to boycott the motorsport. NASCAR’S act is one of bravery, given the conservative nature of its fans in this four-wheeled niche sport.

Wallace, prompted by NASCAR’s stance on the Confederate flag, decided to paint “Black Lives Matter” on his racing car for the upcoming race in Martinsville.

Despite a few critics of Wallace (including those who claimed that he, like Kaepernick, was doing it because of his vanishing career), solidarity has been shown to him by his colleagues.. As a matter of fact, in the last race of Talladega, Wallace was pushed — as in a parade —  by his colleagues to the first row. It was a clear support for Wallace’s cause and for the BLM movement. But a noose was then found in his paddock, with the apparent goal of threatening the driver. Given the weight of the matter, the FBI rapidly stepped in — first declaring that there was insufficient evidence of a crime, and then that the noose was related to a door pull and had been there since 2019.  But their determination was not convincing. With enough racist statements circulating (such as those from the son of former NASCAR legend Mike Skinner),  it is legitimate to think that the FBI’s intervention was to cover up the affair as soon as possible, rather than investigate deeply the situation.

We mentioned earlier that the NBA, one of the very first clubs in which the fight for equality was embraced, was due in part to the vast number of African- American players in the league. But it’s also thanks to the visibility and influence of players such as Kevin Durant and Lebron James, along with their sponsors, that have played an important role in raising awareness. 

Even with that, disrespectful treatment can still be found in the NBA. There’s the ongoing discussion among NBA players as to whether or not to come back to the court during BLM protests.  But we should also analyze the situation of Enes Kanter. As previously reported here on Newscoop, Kanter has been persecuted for his political views by the Turkish President Erdogan, who canceled the passport of the player and arrested his father in punishment for the son’s outspokenness (accusing the father of “terrorism”). Now, after long resistance, Kanter’s family seems to have won against the Turkish autocrat. On Thursday, a Turkish court reportedly dismissed all charges against Enes’ father, Dr. Mehmet Kanter.  In 2018, Dr. Kanter began a 15-year prison sentence, charged with having links to the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who was accused of having orchestrated the 2016 coup to topple Erdogan in Turkey.

Even if this seems to be a story with a positive ending, Enes is still waiting to receive his U.S. citizenship. And he still cannot move from the U.S., given that he does not own a passport (after Erdogan canceled his Turkish passport). 

In this case, as in the Kaepernick situation, it is fair to ask where the U.S. government has been on such matters that were damaging to the lives of Americans. Even worse than the case of Kaepernick, Kanter’s events have been met with only silence. Possibly because the U.S. administration feared major breaks in the already-fragile relations with Turkey.

Given this, I would conclude with a question to readers:

How can you make America great (again) if you cannot even protect your citizens, their rights and their social structures, as in activities such as sports?

Just saying.

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