WASHINGTON -- In the span of 48 hours this week, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, suffered the most dreaded fate a black person in contemporary America can: They became trending topics.
Both were killed by police officers in their respective municipalities for menial things, a broken taillight and selling CDs outside of a store. The nation witnessed both shootings via viral videos shared on social media.
Yet in the aftermath of the shooting, another common occurrence began. Black athletes and athletes of color shared their remorse for the fallen and called for justice. This was met with immediate backlash by people who claimed fandom of different franchises.
The consensus of the disapproving fans in their mentions was that when a black man or woman gets killed by a police officer, the job of the millionaire athlete is to practice silence, not preach for the end of oppression. That ideology is a dismissal of their rights as people of color and citizens of a country that arrests and kills a disproportionate amount of black people.
"In general there’s never really been a space for white people to accept black people to speak out. When we talk about athletics, people look at it like an opportunity. After that, it’s like, ‘Shut up be quiet.’ When athletes speak out, white folks get upset," Lou Moore, an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University studying sports, black and gender history, told SB Nation.
"If we are talking about white people, I’ve never really seen a majority of the white public happy with their black athletes speaking out," Moore continued. "It’s a position of privilege of where (white people) are coming from."
No justice in America. What is Independence Day? Definitely means nothing to black people— Strizzy (@JaelenStrong) July 6, 2016
Aka "shut up and play football".. With all do respect sir, I could care less what "yall" need from me. ✌ ️ https://t.co/RPbGwBIAUT— Strizzy (@JaelenStrong) July 6, 2016
It’s not unimaginable that athletes—especially black athletes—speak out after another person becomes a hashtag at the hands of the police. Race is a social construct that affects every part of society. Sports is a part of that society.
When Eric Garner—a black man who was killed by police in New York City—died, LeBron James donned an "I Can’t Breathe" shirt during pregame routines in 2014, honoring the man’s last words uttered while in an illegal chokehold by an officer. He’s also tweeted this week about Castile and Sterling, to which people responded with a familiar #AllLivesMatter quip.
After the events in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was shot in broad daylight by an officer, members of the St. Louis Rams raised their hands during pregame, mimicking the "hands up, don’t shoot" stance being used at the time and showing solidarity.
This week, Serena Williams and many other athletes—like multitudes do after police officers gun down a black man or woman—voiced her concern for Castille, who was shot in his car on Wednesday night near Minneapolis by an officer when he attempted to show identification, following her semifinal win at Wimbledon.
In London I have to wake up to this. He was black. Shot 4 times? When will something be done- no REALLY be done?!?! pic.twitter.com/OaLn60G6nm— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 7, 2016
The mantra many professional athletes have been told and usually abide by is to keep your head down and worry about the game. With more video evidence of similar faces being gunned down by police, athletes’ adherence to that rule of silence seems to be slowly dissipating, even if the response to their protests remain predictable.
Missouri football players took a stand and decided not to play last November to join the Concerned 1950 protests at the university standing for proper treatment of black students. The response was a Missouri legislator proposing to strip college athletes of their scholarships for refusing to play.
"This is bigger than sports. Of course (black people in sports) are going to react. They should. They should raise their voice and I hope it moves more people to speak and it makes a difference in someone’s life," says Rev. John Vaughn, executive vice president of Auburn Seminary, and creator of the Black Men and Boys program which develops a national policy agenda for the nation’s oldest network of Protestant churches.
Yet there are still others who believe that reacting to this nationalized grief in any form is wrong. Athletes’ attempts at adding to the conversation on systemic injustice get hijacked by fans trying to silence black people. This creates a double-standardized methodology, finding reasons to limit people of color from emoting rather than trying to understand or recognize that emoting.
"We allow white people to openly celebrate or protest the way they want to," Moore said. "There’s a difference in how we look at white dissent and black dissent."
Objections to black dissent have long been raised by sports fans. From boxer Joe Louis making political endorsements in 1946 and 1948 to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 summer Olympics throwing up black power fists on the medal stand, black athletes have always found ways to protest and make political statements.
Black people, millionaire athletes or otherwise, will comment on things that affect a race they are bound to by the color of their skin. After Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, black athletes including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and many athletes stood in solidarity with him amid the very same rhetorical criticism today’s athletes are facing.
Jackie Robinson—the black man who broke baseball’s color barrier and was constantly attacked by writers for his opinions on race—explained in a letter to William Keefe, the sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in July 1956, these emotions, after Keefe wrote an editorial telling Robinson he was to blame for a new Louisiana law criminalizing interracial sports.
"You call me ‘insolent.’ I admit I have not been subservient, but would you use the same adjective to describe a white ballplayer—say Ted Williams, who is, more often than I, involved in controversial matters? Am I insolent or am I merely insolent for a Negro (who has courage enough to speak against injustices such as yours and people like you)?
I am deeply regretful that Louisiana has taken this step backward ... because your sports fans, and I believe there are many fine persons among them, will be deprived of attractions because of it ... not for the Negro in Louisiana who will, because of your law, be deprived the right of free and equal competition—but because of the damage it does to our country.
I am happy for you that you were born white. It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise."
Following the shootings of Sterling and Castile, protests sprung up in Chicago, Philadelphia, DC and New York City. Black people, like these black athletes, found outlets to express their universal grief.
"There’s something about people in pop culture when they speak up about these issues. People pay attention. It raises civil engagement," Vaughn said. "When it comes to sports, it’s a unifying factor in this country. It crosses differences in race, gender and class. To be able to have folks in this context, it makes a difference."
Around midnight last night in Poland, President Barack Obama delivered a speech mirroring how many Americans have felt over the last week. These deaths, Obama said, are an American issue, not just an issue to black and Hispanic people. And those people include athletes.
"These are not incidents, they are symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that's exist in our criminal justice system," Obama said before explaining the disproportionality of people of color being arrested and killed by police at a higher rate than white people.
"When incidents like this occur, there's a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin they are not being treated the same. And that hurts. And that should trouble all of us," Obama continued. "This is not just a black issue, this is not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue. All fair minded people should be concerned."