George Floyd’s murder — and the graphic footage that captured his final breaths — rocked athletes, coaches and executives throughout professional and amateur sports. With the country already on edge just a couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a viral video showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes before Floyd died on May 25, 2020.
The death of an unarmed Black man by police was not a new occurrence in America, with the shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright this month being the latest reminder. But Floyd’s killing seemed to have a galvanizing effect on the sports world.
High-profile athletes from multiple leagues and sports participated in protests against police brutality throughout the United States. Legends, including the famously reticent Michael Jordan, spoke out: “I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism and violence toward people of color in our country,” he said in a statement on May 30. “We have had enough.” Some of the NFL’s biggest stars, including Patrick Mahomes, Ezekiel Elliott, DeAndre Hopkins and Saquon Barkley, released an “I am George Floyd” video, calling for justice for the victims and support for their right to peacefully protest.
Renee Montgomery, then a guard for the Atlanta Dream and now a part-owner of the team, skipped the WNBA season to focus on social justice. The U.S. women’s national soccer team released a unified statement supporting Black Lives Matter, while individual stars, like Rose Lavelle, took to social media: “I will never experience the fear and pain of being a black person in America, but I’ve seen the injustice and reason for this fear and stand with the black community in this fight.”
The cumulative effect put the power brokers within sports on notice: Do you stand with us?
In the months that followed, many leagues and organizations pledged action, money and platforms to help push for the eradication of racism, on and off the competition stage. There were strong statements, formations of social justice organizations, passionate Zoom meetings, anti-racism stickers on helmets and Black Lives Matter painted on baselines. Others, meanwhile, were less specific or slower to react.
“It was a startling wake-up call,” MLB chief people and culture officer Michele Meyer-Shipp told ESPN last week. “Organizations had to speak up, their employees demanded that they spoke up, and that was a turning point for us and for other organizations to realize, ‘You know what? We’ve got to pay attention and keep our eyes on the pulse here because this is serious business that impacts our employees and community and we have to be attentive to it.'”
Almost a year after Floyd’s murder, and with Chauvin being found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter by a jury Tuesday, we look at the leagues’ progress, their actions and inactions, and the work that still needs to be done.
— Myron Medcalf
NBA: Players amplify their activism
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, reaction from many NBA players was swift and immediate.
Players from the Minnesota Timberwolves gathered at a Minneapolis rally that former NBA star Stephen Jackson helped organize on May 29. As more Black Lives Matter marches began to sprout around the country, players including Stephen Curry, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill and Damian Lillard were also in the streets protesting.
Commissioner Adam Silver sent an internal memo to league staff within days, saying the NBA shared “the outrage” and offered “sincere condolences to families and friends” of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. “We are being reminded that there are wounds in our country that have never healed,” he wrote. “Racism, police brutality and racial injustice remain part of everyday life in America and cannot be ignored.”
Within the next week, the National Basketball Coaches Association established a committee on racial injustice and reform to seek solutions in NBA cities. Its statement, signed by 33 current and former head coaches and nearly 180 assistant coaches, read, in part: “As NBA coaches — both head and assistant coaches — we lead groups of men, most of whom are African American, and we see, hear and share their feelings of disgust, frustration, helplessness and anger. The events of the past few weeks — police brutality, racial profiling and the weaponization of racism — are shameful, inhumane and intolerable.”
Before arriving at the 2020 season bubble in Orlando, Florida, some players expressed concerns about whether resuming play would distract from ongoing social justice protests and demonstrations, or whether the environment could complicate their organizing efforts.
But meetings between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association yielded decisions that elevated messaging within the pandemic-forced bubble — from agreed-upon sayings for jerseys, such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” to messaging on courts, to players holding on-site meetings how to amplify their activism.
On Aug. 5, the NBA committed to donating $300 million over 10 years to support “greater economic empowerment in the black community,” improving diversity in the coaching and executive ranks and turning arenas into voting centers ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
But yet another tipping point for sports, and the country, came on Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, who is Black.
Three days later, the Milwaukee Bucks organized a strike and did not play Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic. By the evening of Aug. 26, the NBA had postponed all three of its playoff games, while the WNBA and other pro leagues followed suit.
“I got half of my brain locked in on the playoffs and the other half locked in on how the hell I can help Black people become greater in America,” LeBron James said then. “I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America.”
The stoppage sparked two days of meetings between players, coaches and executives, who discussed how, and if, they wanted to proceed with the 2020 season. Ultimately, players decided to resume the playoffs, while the league jointly announced initiatives including increased voting access, promoting civic engagement and advocating for “meaningful police and criminal justice reform.“
“We didn’t think that this was gonna turn the way that it did,” Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said at the time. “But we are grateful for the fact that, that moment, that pause, that postponement was able to help everybody reflect again and realize that everybody’s gotta step up.”
In the eight months since, the NBA has upheld its financial promise, and the majority of teams and arenas played a role in the election. On April 5, the league also announced the distribution of $3 million from the NBA’s original commitment in grants to nine different organizations as a part of its larger pledge.
But while the players’ association leadership committee receives weekly emails and text messages, updating it on the NBA’s diversity initiatives, the diversity of head coaches continues to be stagnant, as detailed last month by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton.
“It’s not to say that every coach should be Black, but when situations like these come up, how many times has a Black coach had a chance to coach two champions on it in terms of Brooklyn? I haven’t seen it,” Chicago Bulls guard Garrett Temple, who is a vice president of the players’ association, told ESPN. “With that being said, things are not equal in my opinion still, and it would be unrealistic to expect it a year removed.
“We still have a long way to go.”
“It’s different stories every single day about families’ lives getting altered because of police brutality,” Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant said recently. “At this point, I don’t really know what to say.”
— Malika Andrews
WNBA: The league ‘absolutely met the goal’
WNBA players have long had a focus on social justice issues. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, second-year commissioner Cathy Engelbert empowered the league to support its players’ initiatives.
While Engelbert gave an initial statement on June 5 — “The WNBA opposes racism in all its forms … We will build on this commitment and support WNBA players in the fight against racial inequality. Enough is enough” — the league and players’ association worked together to announce a month later the season would be dedicated to women who had died in connection to police action or alleged racial violence. The joint platform was called “The Justice Movement.”
Since revealing its season plan, the WNBA created a Social Justice Council, which now serves as the educational and organizational hub for player-driven activism. The council has hosted conversations with Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama, Raquel Willis and Kimberle’ Crenshaw, founder of the “Say Her Name” campaign. The league also donated $50,000 to the African American Policy Forum as part of its State Farm Community Assist Award Program in honor of the players’ efforts.
Throughout the season, WNBA players highlighted women’s stories and how such violence occurs. The league approved player apparel, such as warm-up shirts with “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back. Every player jersey had Breonna Taylor’s name on the back.
After the WNBA joined other leagues in boycotting its three Aug. 26 games in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Engelbert told ESPN’s Holly Rowe: “We are running a very player-first agenda. … And that’s why I was here to listen, to talk with them, maybe impart some of my knowledge from my experience and help them think through strategically what this night meant to them and then where they want to go from here.”
The players have continued to advocate, often with vocal — and sometimes financial — support from Engelbert and the league office.
“If you looked at what the players accomplished last year when faced with multiple crises at one time, I’m hoping they get a little break,” Engelbert said recently. “This is a heavy burden on the players to carry their messaging and their powerful statements that they’ve had about being women and women professional athletes and being even beyond the sports landscape.”
After Kelly Loeffler, then the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, sent a letter to Engelbert on July 7, objecting to the league’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, players across the WNBA pushed for her to lose her United States Senate seat and for the team to be sold. Both came to fruition, with the players’ chosen candidate, Raphael Warnock, ascending to the Senate and the Dream being sold to Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair and former Atlanta guard Renee Montgomery.
The Social Justice Council and players’ association have now turned their attention to COVID-19 vaccine education, hosting a series of webinars for players. Moving forward, health equity will be a focus of the council PSA during the 2021 WNBA draft. The WNBA will be donating an additional $25,000 to the Black Women’s Health Imperative.
The team and player sources contacted by ESPN over the past week believe the league is doing its job in supporting its players.
“The league has absolutely met the goal,” one player source told ESPN. “The challenge will be to continue pushing the boundaries on what sports can do to bring about change, particularly when that change is seen as too radical.”
— Katie Barnes
NFL: More money, attention into Inspire Change program
Players and other league employees were disappointed and exasperated by the tepid tone of commissioner Roger Goodell’s initial statement following Floyd’s death, issued on May 30 and pledged the NFL was “committed to continuing the important work to address these systemic issues together with our players, clubs and partners.”
Feeling it was a reminder of the league’s failure to support players such as Colin Kaepernick during pregame protests that started in 2016, a group of the sport’s stars challenged Goodell to address the issues more forcefully and directly, and urged him to say the words, “Black lives matter.”
On June 5, Goodell released a video on social media, saying, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter” and adding that, “Without Black players there would be no National Football League.” He pledged that “We are listening, I am listening, and I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices, and others on how we can move forward together for a better and more united NFL family.” That second statement set the table for what was to follow, and there have been no public complaints since.
Goodell has since reached out to players, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, one of the stars who had implored Goodell and the NFL to be more forceful in response to Floyd’s murder. Mahomes confirmed on June 10 that he had spoken with Goodell and added: “He has shown his support to us.” Mahomes’ conversation focused on the NFL Votes project to encourage voting and civic engagement.
The league, meanwhile, has boosted its financial commitment to social justice initiatives. At the time of Floyd’s death, the NFL was finalizing plans for the third season of its Inspire Change program, which focuses on reducing barriers for opportunity in four areas — education, economic advancement, criminal justice reform and police/community relations — and had been funded in part by a $100 million grant owners made through an alignment with the Players Coalition.
“We really determined that this work has to be always on. It couldn’t be that social justice was something that only came around at only one particular time of year, but it really had to be 365 days a year.”
Anna Isaacson, NFL senior vice president for social responsibility
Floyd’s murder prompted the NFL to make two changes to Inspire Change. First, it expanded the financial commitment to $250 million to be disbursed over a 10-year period, and added 13 new grant partners to bring its total to 30. As of early February, the league reported that $95 million had been distributed through more than 1,200 individual grants. The second, according to NFL senior vice president for social responsibility Anna Isaacson, was an internal shift to push the program to the front of league consciousness throughout the season.
That manifested in public messaging, among other avenues, through an agreement with players to allow social justice messaging on helmets and playing fields throughout the 2020 season. Previously, the NFL had limited its public engagement on social justice to the postseason. But last season, “End racism” could be seen just outside of the end zone, and players had the option of honoring a victim of systemic racism and police brutality with their name or initial as a helmet decal.
Plans around end zone and helmet messaging for the 2021 season remain in development, said Isaacson, a longtime NFL executive who was moved into her current role in 2014 to manage primarily the league’s response to domestic violence. The job has expanded to include all aspects of social responsibility.
“We really determined that this work has to be always on. It couldn’t be that social justice was something that only came around at only one particular time of year, but it really had to be 365 days a year,” she said. “We really wanted to make sure that everyone throughout the organization was accountable to this work, and that it became who we are in our culture.”
— Kevin Seifert
MLB: ‘A startling wake-up call’
Major League Baseball rarely jumps into public positions that could politically compromise its standing with fans. Players such as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, celebrated today as the sport’s heroes, were often the source of criticism during their playing days due to their roles as equity pioneers within the sport.
Because of that culture, baseball players were often slower to react and MLB was the last among the four major U.S. sports leagues to publicly acknowledge the killing of Floyd, posting a statement on social media on June 3, nine days after his death.
“The reality that the Black community lives in fear or anxiety over racial discrimination, prejudice or violence is unacceptable. Addressing this issue requires action both within our sport and society,” the statement read in part. “MLB is committed to engaging our communities to invoke change. We will take the necessary time, effort and collaboration to address symptoms of systemic racism, prejudice and injustice, but will be equally as focused on the root of the problem.”
The most attention-grabbing action the league has taken since that statement was moving the 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest a new Georgia law that Democrats and voting rights groups say will disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.
“We really try to keep politics out of the game, we really, really do,” said MLB chief people and culture officer Michele Meyer-Shipp. “[The decision to move the All-Star Game] is thinking about it from the democracy standpoint and basic human rights standpoint and that ties back to those strong values that everyone should have fair and equal access.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred hired Meyer-Shipp, who is Black, in August as part of his desire to overhaul the league’s approach to addressing issues of racial injustice and diversity within the sport. MLB took other steps to amplify minorities within the sport, hosting conversations on social media, MLB.com and MLB Network addressing issues of diversity in baseball.
The commissioner’s office itself became more diverse in the past year with the hiring of several former players, including Ken Griffey Jr. as a special adviser to the commissioner, Michael Hill and Raul Ibañez as senior vice presidents of baseball operations, Rajai Davis as a senior director of on-field operations, Joe Martinez as senior director of on-field strategy and Bo Porter as a consultant on coaching development.
MLB also donated more than $1.1 million total to Campaign Zero, Color of Change, the Equal Justice Initiative, Jackie Robinson Foundation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as well as committing $10 million alongside the MLBPA to help fund programs from The Players Alliance. The programs with the Players Alliance will include annual joint grants through 2024 that will offer player-led mentorship, look to increase Black youth and young adult participation in baseball, support Black cultural education, camps and programs designed to remove barriers to baseball participation, increase Black business partnerships, and provide scholarships to the Black community.
MLB became the first sports league to join the Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan group of businesses aiming to increase voter registration while also committing to Time to Vote, a business-led initiative to help employees have access and information about early voting or vote-by-mail options. The NBA, WNBA and G-League have since followed suit.
— Joon Lee
NHL: Action through allyship
The NHL continues to be one of the most predominantly white leagues in professional sports. There are no Black owners, team presidents, GMs or head coaches in the league, while roughly 95% of its players are white.
On May 31, six days after George Floyd died, the NHL acknowledged its continued “shortcomings” in a statement.
“We share the sentiments expressed by our players and Clubs in their calls for justice, and we encourage everyone to use their platforms and privilege for systemic change,” the statement read in part. “In our own sport, we will continue to do better and work diligently toward culture change throughout hockey and endeavor to be mindful of our own shortcomings in this process.”
To do so, the league needed to level its entire hockey ecosystem around education.
“It was really important for people to get a better sense of what was going on in our country and how we as a sport needed to show up,” NHL executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs Kim Davis said. “Particularly since our form of change was going to be through allyship, because of the number of white players we have relative to other sports.”
Once the NHL put out its statement, Davis, who is Black, said there was an “amazing” response; many around the league told Davis they wanted hockey to be part of a social justice movement, they just didn’t know the best approach, considering the league’s lack of diversity.
“It was never a case of a lack of buy-in. Frankly, it was a case of people not knowing what to do,” said Davis, who reports directly to commissioner Gary Bettman. “I heard consistently from owners and presidents saying, ‘We know we need to do something, we just feel a bit vulnerable over how to proceed.'”
Davis oversees 21 people across the Social Impact, Growth Initiatives and Legislative Affairs (SGL) Group, the Industry Growth Fund (IGF) Group and the Public Affairs Group. Over the summer, Davis’ team ran a program for NHL teams called “Courageous Conversations,” but cautioned that it was only a starting point.
Since June, 50% of the 32 NHL teams have engaged, or have committed to engaging, with third-party organizations to facilitate diversity and inclusion training. Meanwhile, 72% of teams (23-of-32) reported that they have established, or will establish, a diversity and inclusion council, working group or advisory board. Also, 59% of teams (19-of-32) reported building programs focused on increasing hockey participation among BIPOC youth.
On the NHL encouraging everyone to “use their platforms and privilege for systemic change,” Davis cited former NHL players Anson Carter and JT Brown working with the Alliance for Criminal Reform. “They’re sitting on this committee with people like Ariana Grande, Diddy, Chris Paul,” Davis said. “This is something, historically, the NHL would never be actively involved in.”
This season, the NHL and Bauer created customized skates honoring the league’s first Black player, Willie O’Ree. Fourteen players wore the skates, which will be auctioned off with proceeds going to the Black Girl Hockey Club scholarship fund. Though the NHL was looking for ways to honor O’Ree this season regardless, the idea to funnel proceeds to a BIPOC community group was in part inspired by Floyd’s death.
As far as the league’s own financial commitments, the NHL matched a $50,000 donation to George Floyd’s daughter made in June by P.K. Subban, one of the league’s most prominent Black players. There haven’t been any other public financial investments from the league — though an NHL spokesperson said it has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on its diversity and inclusion training over the past several months.
The NHL established four of its own leadership groups in June: an Executive Inclusion Committee (co-chaired by Buffalo Sabres owner Kim Pegula and Bettman), a Player Inclusion Committee (including former and current men’s and women’s players), a Fan Inclusion Committee and a Youth Hockey Inclusion Committee. In November 2020, the EIC commissioned a current state analysis of NHL’s diversity efforts.
“Many would say it took longer than necessary to get up and running,” Davis said, noting that the league was deliberate in vetting committee members and training them in a session facilitated by the consulting firm Korn Ferry before they were even able to meet.
“What we’re expecting from them is action,” Davis said. “The executive committee is there not to generate ideas. They are there to listen to ideas coming from the key stakeholder groups — the Fan Inclusion Committee, the Player Inclusion Committee and the Youth Inclusion Committee — and to then make some decisions about resources, advocacy, sponsorship, the things that we need to control at the highest levels of the league.”
Davis said the league is in the midst of asking how it can use this movement as motivation for lasting and sustainable change.
“I started thinking about frameworks and models we needed to put in place across the clubs to make sure that five, 10, 15 years from now, we weren’t starting over, but making progress and measuring progress over time,” Davis said. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. And I’m very optimistic about our future based on what I’ve seen us execute on over the last few months.”
— Emily Kaplan
NASCAR: A push to make racing more inclusive
On June 1, NASCAR made a statement addressing the “troubling events” that had taken place across America after the murder of George Floyd.
“For us to heal and move forward as a nation, we all need to listen more and be united in the stand against racism, hatred, senseless violence and loss of life. And we must all hold ourselves accountable to driving positive change,” the statement read. “While our sport has made progress over the years, there remains much work to be done and we fully embrace our responsibility to help bridge the racial divide that continues to exist in our country. We must do better and our commitment to promoting equality and inclusion continues and will never waver.”
A week later, Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only African American driver in the sport’s top series, believed the next steps should be banning the Confederate flag so everyone could feel comfortable at NASCAR events. Two days later, NASCAR released a statement letting fans know that the “the display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
In the 10 months since the company vowed to hold itself accountable, NASCAR has made several changes, including the development of executive ally and diverse employee councils within the company, to stay true to its commitment of promoting a more inclusive environment.
A week after implementing the Confederate flag ban, former NASCAR Touring Series managing director Brandon Thompson, who is Black, was appointed to the new role of vice president of diversity & inclusion. One of Thompson’s priorities was to assess areas that lacked support over the years, which included engagement with Black consumers and fans, more specific outreach to women, and more support for the LGBTQ+ community.
NASCAR’s latest diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives included the creation of four Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) for women, Black, Hispanic and Latinx and LGBTQ+ employees for additional support and community with plans for more strategic rollouts of ERGs. Thompson also began working with human resources to create a diverse slate hiring policy, which would encourage hiring managers to choose from a more diverse pool of candidates. The group also chose to focus on professional development and leadership initiatives to continue to foster a more inclusive environment inside the office. Since last June, seven employees of color have been hired or promoted to positions at the director level or higher, three of them earning their titles as officers within the company.
“Everything we’ve done is not meant to exclude anyone, but to include everyone.”
Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s vice president of diversity & inclusion
After a noose was found in driver Bubba Wallace’s garage during last season’s trip to Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR updated its sensitivity training methods, partnering with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), the Institute for Sport and Social Justice and DECK Leadership. There has since been a successful completion of more than 3,000 sensitivity and unconscious bias training sessions. NASCAR didn’t respond to requests for information on any financial investments.
Outside the changes within its offices, NASCAR has partnered with the Women’s Sports Foundation, UnidosUS and The Trevor Project to support organizations that advocate for diversity and inclusion as well as social causes. NASCAR has also added initiatives to its ongoing partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Through the years, NASCAR has strengthened its relationship with HBCUs through multiple collaborations, including the Drive for Diversity combine across HBCU campuses to introduce a more diverse group of students to the sport.
Its most recent endeavor involves the introduction of pilot programs within the esports realm in partnership with the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC)’s esports community, which will feature events with competitors from all 12 SWAC member universities and esports racing competitions that will be live-streamed on Twitch. The esports collaboration offers exposure to NASCAR, but also gives students the opportunity to explore future careers in motorsports and gaming.
In a brand-tracking study commissioned by NASCAR and conducted in February by Directions Research, a business decision insight firm, 1,750 self-identified “avid” NASCAR fans were polled on their opinions regarding NASCAR’s stance on social justice last year. Fans of 16-plus years were three times more likely to approve of NASCAR’s actions, fans of 4-15 years were six times likely to approve, and fans of 0-3 years were eight times likely to approve.
“NASCAR is open to everyone. Everything we’ve done is not meant to exclude anyone, but to include everyone,” Thompson said. “We’ve really taken an inside-out approach. There weren’t a ton of action items in the statement. We were just focused on doing the work and focusing more on action than putting out words. We’ve taken most of the time to focus internally.”
— Maya A. Jones
College Sports: Athletes make the biggest impact
In response to George Floyd’s murder, NCAA president Mark Emmert said, in part, via statement, “The college athletic community must be clear in our stand that it cannot be tolerated. We must, therefore, commit ourselves individually and collectively to examining what we can do to make our society more just and equal.”
The NCAA has since tried to be “proactive with statements, stories and programs,” highlighting efforts from athletes, conferences and schools, associate director of communications Greg Johnson told ESPN earlier this month.
It organized a webpage promoting activism from athletes, a study on athletes’ engagement in activism, and strategies on how to take action. It also has an inclusion webpage with various links to issues the organization has addressed since Floyd’s death, including a list of goals to “advance racial justice and equity.” The NCAA also created a six-page strategy to address racial justice and, more recently, provided anti-racism resources to support Asian American and Pacific Islanders after the March 16 mass shooting in Atlanta. Diversity and inclusion campaigns have also been shared via social media.
And while the NCAA’s response and actions were more educational or symbolic, it was the athletes of the 1,110 schools in the NCAA that created the biggest impact across campuses. Their own statements, actions and protests raised more awareness and aimed to bridge the equality gap in college athletics.
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill vowed not to play a game unless the state flag was changed, as Mississippi was then the only state flag that featured the banner of the Confederacy. A week earlier, the NCAA expanded its Confederate flag policy to prohibit all its championship events from being played in states that fly the flag.
Iowa fired longtime strength coach Chris Doyle after complaints he contributed to a team culture that was racist. Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard called out head coach Mike Gundy for wearing a One America News T-shirt, a far-right news network that has been known to promote conspiracy theories and had one of its anchors refer to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “farce.”
These were just a handful of the actions taken by athletes to combat racism in tactile ways, ways that simply raising awareness, or a false sense of equality and unity, cannot.
One of the most substantial and sweeping efforts was the #WeAreUnited movement created by Pac-12 athletes, whose main objective was to bring an end to racial injustice in college sports and society. The group outlined steps within four specific goals, which outlined measures to improve COVID-19 safety protocols, protecting the existence of all sports, economic freedom and equity, and ending racial injustices. It was the most vast and comprehensive plan to upend systemic racism in college athletics, and bring equality to all who participate. Most of the players’ demands went unmet by then-commissioner Larry Scott.
Elisha Guidry, a UCLA defensive back who is one of the leading members of the #WeAreUnited movement, said, “I feel like people are now more aware, and there has been a lot of educational parts of it, but I feel like it hasn’t been a lot of tangible things.”
“Things are moving, but they’re not moving as fast as we want. [The NCAA is] still stubborn in their ways and just trying to be slow so this batch of athletes moves on from college and the new batch of athletes doesn’t care as much,” Guidry added. “As we’ve seen, there’s still going to be people being killed by the police. That’s not changing,” Guidry said. “It should, but it’s not. We’ll see if they continue to do all that symbolic stuff, or are they going to take it to the next level?”
— Harry Lyles, Jr.
Tennis: Players pick up the slack
Similar to college sports, professional tennis has no centralized voice.
As tennis is a global sport with the majority of players on both the ATP and WTA tours hailing from outside of the United States, and with no formal union for players in which they could force action collectively, most has come from individual players — mainly Black Americans.
Days after Floyd’s death, teenage star Coco Gauff spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in her hometown of Delray Beach, Florida.
“This is not just about George Floyd,” she said. “This is about Trayvon Martin. This is about Eric Garner. This is about Breonna Taylor. This is about stuff that’s been happening. I was 8 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed.
“So why am I here at 16 still demanding change?”
Frances Tiafoe started a “Rackets down, hands up” video challenge and Naomi Osaka attended a protest in Minneapolis and wrote an op-ed for Esquire about systematic racism and police brutality.
Osaka’s decision to not play in her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August prompted the most visible action from any of the organizations. The USTA, ATP and WTA collectively paused the tournament for a day in an effort to take a stance on racial inequality and social injustice.
The following week at the US Open, the USTA unveiled its “Be Open” campaign, inspired by the moment and featuring original works by Black artists in Arthur Ashe Stadium and video vignettes about champions and trailblazers of diversity and change.
“It’s important to hold all of these organizations accountable for the things that they said that they were going to do because if we don’t continue to see progress, I think it’s absolutely fair to say, ‘What you’re doing isn’t working.'”
Marisa Grimes, USTA chief diversity and inclusion officer
“Our commitment to openness has taken on even greater urgency this year with the reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement,” the organization said in a release about the initiative. “Continuing to strive to make our culture inclusive and welcoming to all can only help us in our quest to seek answers that will heal our communities. Seeing our differences as valuable assets will only make us stronger.”
Osaka, who won the US Open, wore seven different masks — one for each match — throughout the tournament, each with the name of a Black American who has died as a result of racial injustice or police brutality. “The point is to make people start talking,” she said at the tournament.
There hasn’t been much talking from the sport’s leadership.
Neither the ATP nor the WTA released a statement following George Floyd’s murder, but used a joint “Tennis United” digital show as a place for conversation among players on the topic. On an episode released on June 6, Black players Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Townsend spoke separately about their experiences with racism in the country and in the sport and their efforts to create change.
“Tennis United provides a platform for our players’ voices to be heard,” read the message at the beginning of the nine-minute video. “Today is no different. Tennis United stands with our players in support of unity and equality.”
The USTA, which is the national governing body for the sport and oversees 650,000 members across all levels of play, brought in Marisa Grimes to fill the vacant chief diversity and inclusion officer position in January and has since prioritized increasing diversity across the sport — from the hiring of positions within the national organization to at the grassroots level with players, coaches and officials.
The USTA released a “statement on current events” on June 1. The organization did not mention Floyd by name but referenced the “agonizing and inexcusable hardships and dangers” faced by the African-American community and called for reflection and conversation.
“The USTA encourages all of us to reflect on the message and legacy of the exemplars of our sport to listen to the African-American community; and together seek answers that heal our communities. It is time to engage with our friends and colleagues of color, and to stand in solidarity with them. We know that these efforts are simply not enough, but as we consider our humanity and the humanity of all, we hope it is a strong beginning.”
There were no public financial commitments made by any of the three organizations. In a joint statement to ESPN, the ATP and the WTA said the tours “remain committed to promoting greater tolerance, diversity and inclusion,” but did not share any specific figures or initiatives to achieve those goals other than the continued use of the “Tennis United” platform for player discussion on social issues.
Grimes said she has spent much of her first three months on the job listening to those internally, as well as other partners across the tennis community.
“Because there have been so many women of color who have been so visible in the sport in recent years, I didn’t realize [before considering the position] that it hasn’t always been as diverse and inclusive as it seems,” Grimes told ESPN. “But my goal is to make my previous perception the reality and build a more inclusive culture.”
She hopes to grow last year’s “Be Open” campaign at the 2021 US Open and be more “action-oriented” this time around. The USTA is working with players and other organizations, including the ATP and the WTA, as it formalizes its plans.
“There is a lot of work being done, but also it takes a lot of time,” Grimes said. “But it’s important to hold all of these organizations accountable for the things that they said that they were going to do because if we don’t continue to see progress, I think it’s absolutely fair to say, ‘What you’re doing isn’t working.’
“I think that focus needs to be on us, as well as other organizations who have made commitments to drive progress forward, to make sure we’re continuing to do that.”
Soccer: Slow steps across a disparate sport
Soccer in the United States has numerous stakeholders, from the U.S. Soccer Federation to the MLS and NWSL, and all of its prominent organizations released statements after George Floyd’s death in social justice.
On June 1, the MLS wrote, in part: “We stand united with the black community throughout our country and share in the pain, anger and frustration. We hear you. We see you. We support you.”
That same day, the NWSL also tweeted: “The NWSL, our athletes, owners, and officials, stand in solidarity with those demanding justice and equality. Our country simply has to do better and our league will do everything in our power to help advance the change this moment requires.” With commissioner Lisa Baird adding that “diversity is going to be a number one principle for us for sure. It needs to be in America today.”
The USSF’s statement simply read: “One Nation. One Team. United Against Racism.”
And while none of the groups outlined immediate steps to address issues within their leagues and the sport overall, some have launched a variety of initiatives since last May.
Over the past 11 months, MLS and its clubs have been the most active. In February, the league hired former NFL and A+E Television Networks executive Sola Winley to be its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. It also formulated a DE&I committee that includes members from Black Players For Change (BPC), Soccer Collective on Racial Equity (SCORE) and members of Pitch Black, a group of employees from the MLS league office.
Last October, MLS pledged to donate $1 million to BPC and started a Supplier Diversity Program to provide opportunities and engage minority-owned businesses. For its youth development initiative, MLS NEXT, the league announced last month it is holding anti-racism educational seminars, and increasing access to coaching licenses for diverse candidates. MLS is also using league resources to close the representation gap in the sport. (There are currently just two Black head coaches and two Black sporting directors.)
Five MLS club stadiums were used as polling places/drop boxes during the 2020 presidential election to increase voting access. There also was the MLS Unites The Vote initiative to encourage voter engagement. D.C. United tabbed Danita Johnson to be its president of business operations, making her the first Black team president in league history.
Commissioner Don Garber recently told ESPN that MLS would take steps to “financially support organizations that could make a difference in our society. It will include us digging into the inequities and the overall inequality within the sport of soccer, starting at the youth level and then all the way up through the professionals, and assuring that we are providing equal opportunity at all levels.”
In the NWSL, there has been little in the way of initiatives since last year, which the league says is due to a bare-bones league office staff of about 15 people. The NWSL did announce a sponsorship deal with Ally, part of which includes “significant Diversity, Equality and Inclusion initiatives over the life of the sponsorship.”
For its Fall Series, the league issued grants to the top three teams, which in turn could donate the funds to local charities. Several of the league’s teams opted for causes related to racial equity and social justice, including the Houston Dash (local chapter of the NAACP), OL Reign (Black Future Co-op Fund) and Gotham FC (New Jersey Institute for Social Justice).
In June, the USSF’s board of directors, which governs the day-to-day affairs of the federation, repealed the policy that banned players from kneeling during the national anthem — a decision that was formally enacted by the USSF National Council (the organization’s voting membership) in February. The vote did not come without controversy, as then-Athletes Council member Seth Jahn engaged in incendiary remarks in which he minimized the impact of slavery and called incidents of police brutality as it relates to the Black community “a statistical anomaly.” Jahn was subsequently removed from his position by other members of the council.
The USSF was later criticized for not doing more to condemn Jahn’s comments, although it later put out a statement distancing itself from his remarks. At that same AGM, former U.S. international star Cobi Jones, who is Black, lost his bid for the USSF vice presidency and voiced his frustrations.
“This was a lost opportunity for U.S. Soccer,” Jones said about his election defeat. “At this day and time, everyone’s been talking about the social issues at hand and everything that needs to occur, and this was a great opportunity for U.S. Soccer to make strides forward with the various things that happened.”
The USSF has worked to amplify social justice messaging with its senior national teams. The men’s team adopted the “Be The Change” slogan, while the women’s side wore “Black Lives Matter” on their warm-ups ahead of its 2-0 win against the Netherlands in November.
Much of what has been implemented has been internal to the organization, a necessary step given its lack of diversity in the past. The USSF assessed the organization’s needs in terms of DE&I, creating an internal council, implementing training programs and hiring a director as part of its HR department.
These changes are viewed as the first in a series. Once the USSF gets its house in order, the hope among those contacted by ESPN is it will implement more outward-facing programs for a sport that is widely viewed as not doing enough to be inclusive.
“I would say it’s a mixed bag, really. The judgment is still out,” Toronto FC defender and BPC executive director Justin Morrow said of the steps MLS and USSF have taken. “For us, as Black Players For Change, MLS has done a fantastic job of working with us. I know the enthusiasm and intent is all there on their side, and it’s coming from a really genuine place. … Maybe there’s a little frustration on our side, that things aren’t moving faster, but [MLS] tell us, ‘This is this is how it works.”
— Jeff Carlisle