Wealthy, weary athletes could change the world

Friday, September 4, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 36

Officials stand beside an empty court at the scheduled start of an NBA basketball first round playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic on Aug. 26. The Milwaukee Bucks didn’t take the floor in protest against racial injustice and the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

A sleeping giant awakened last week – if just for a moment – when professional athletes from major sports refused to play in response to another police shooting of an unarmed Black man.

Most of them returned to their various courts and playing fields within a couple of days, no doubt leaving many to dismiss the stoppages as a one-off protest or perhaps a way for players to relieve some of the pressure of playing under COVID-19 restrictions.

But I’m guessing smart politicians and the marketing professionals who turn games into a multibillion-dollar business won’t be so quick to turn the page. These players might have started something that everyone involved should take seriously.

About 13% of the U.S. population is African American, yet the NBA is about 80% Black. The NFL is about 70% Black. Baseball is only about 8-9% Black, but almost 30% Hispanic.

There are roughly 1,760 players on active NFL rosters – 32 teams, 55 active roster spots this year. The NBA has 450 players on active rosters, and Major League Baseball about 1,000. They don’t all own South Beach mansions, but the average annual NBA salary is pushing $8 million. It’s $4 million-plus for Major League players and almost $3 million for NFL players.

Add other professional players who protested – NHL, MLS, professional tennis – and you have a wealthy collective of young, idealistic millionaires looking to make a statement for social justice.

These athletes have money and marketability and could use both to bring about real political change. Think the people who vote on social reforms won’t take them seriously? Let them put together a $100 million political action committee.

Now they’re speaking a language politicians understand.

While it’s easy to assume all that money would go toward progressive issues – social justice, police reform, etc. – those same athletes might decide they are paying too much in taxes on the money they earn in often-short careers and decide a move to the right would be in their interests.

Aside from spending their own money, players could wield considerable clout through a prolonged work stoppage. That would hit owners, TV networks and advertisers where it hurts most.

Uber-wealthy Michael Jordan, who steered clear of politics during his playing days, apparently played a key role in navigating last week’s work stoppage, advising players and his fellow owners. He understands perhaps as well as anyone the power players could unleash.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos made an indelible impact at the 1968 Olympics with their “Black Power” salute. It was the warning shot for a movement that continued in fits and starts throughout the 20th century but always lacked the muscle to force real change. Symbolism and rhetoric can only take an effort so far.

It will only be when Black athletes become a financial force that the political world will take full notice.

And that need not apply to professional athletes only. College football and basketball players might not have much spending money, but they could wield tremendous financial clout if they refuse to participate in a business model that makes billions off their non-salaried efforts.

The struggle for equality and social justice is often viewed as outsiders wanting what the insiders have. Maybe the key is to realize the power the insiders already have and use that clout to lift the minority citizens who don’t.

Lyle Graves is associate publisher and executive editor of the Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at lgraves@tnledger.com.