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In a new era of protest we need to demand more from white athletes

It was the spring of 1968 in Los Angeles and something uncontrollable was eating at Jack Tenner.

For months a proposed “Negro boycott” was discussed among black athletes for the upcoming Olympics in Mexico City. Tenner — a white civil rights lawyer and judge who fought for black people and athletes for decades — called for a similar boycott in 1960. But heading into what would be a historic Olympics, Tenner wanted to set a record straight.

Tenner sent a letter to his friend Brad Pye, a legendary black journalist with a column at the LA Sentinel, a black publication. In it, Tenner expressed thoughts about the role white athletes played in a visibly racist America.

“At the moment I seriously question whether white America is ready to take the total responsibility necessary to remake the American society. But the activity of Negro athletes to bear witness in their identification with this struggle should not be repudiated, rather, the call should be on white athletes who labor on the same athletic field and come to have respect for their fellow athletes,” Tenner wrote.

Recently, white NFL players (like Chris Long and Justin Britt) have gained national attention for showing support for their protesting black teammates. Then on Monday night, a group of Browns players knelt in prayer during the national anthem. The group included Seth DeValve, who is white, and who after the game explained that “he wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there’s things in this country that still need to change.”

Last season, USWNT player Megan Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem before an NWSL game. The entire Indiana Fever team is also protesting before WNBA games.

These shows of support are just the beginning.

Tenner detailed a sentiment running parallel to that. It is understood by people of color in his era and this one: that black athletes, in majority, are the ones dissenting. But the issue wasn’t with protest or how they did it, rather, the fact that they seemed alone.

“[White athletes] are the ones who should protest the lack of opportunity in athletics for coaching, front office jobs and executive jobs,” Tenner continued in his letter. “It is to the white athlete that one should turn and demand his support in the struggle for equality.”

What Tenner outlined is the need for the voice of white athletes in a racist America that seems immovable. It is the need for acts of support: When white athletes speak about divisive and political issues it lessens the burden of the black athlete who tends to shoulder the weight of racism in their athletic world.

White athletes can spread ideas to white consumers, which lead to avenues for substantive conversation and results. An irony of racism is that it is something created and advanced by whiteness, yet whiteness is a deciding factor in reversing the tide.

This was Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett’s call to his white counterparts when starting his protest during the national anthem before games this season. Bennett made a simple plea to white athletes asking them to get involved.

"It would take a white player to really get things changed," Bennett said. "Because when somebody from the other side understands and they step up and they speak up about it ... it would change the whole conversation. Because when you bring somebody who doesn't have to be a part of [the] conversation making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a jump."

He, like many in history, understands that white athletes are essential to propel conversations about racism forward. However, the role of the white athlete isn’t to merely support black athletes in their struggle for equality. They need and deserve more than a pat on the shoulder. No, white athletes must be as vocal — if not louder — than the oppressed looking to end their generational pain.

“This is the ultimate expression of playing while white. You can be silent. You can come out and condemn people like Kaepernick or you can do the most minimal of silent protests. The consequences will always be minimal and the praise will always be great,” David Leonard, a Washington State University professor and author of Playing While White, said.

“We need to demand more from white athletes and white fans and white coaches and general managers and owners,” Leonard continued. “Not just in terms of gestures and symbolic standards, but pointed, directed protests.”

Los Angeles Rams v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

In 1992 Johnette Howard, a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, posed a question to readers: “Where are white voices in the assault on racism?”

At that time, Sports Illustrated surveyed over 300 athletes and many black athletes said that race relations with white athletes were acceptable. Seventy-three percent of black respondents even said they received the same fan treatment as their white counterparts.

Howard asked: If that were true, then why is it that the “near-unanimous majority of athletes who speak out against racism are black. Why?” To Howard, the black athlete’s voice in these discussions were muddied. She didn’t understand why black athletes’ social consciousness was routinely judged, as if it was less authentic because a white man didn’t say it.

Richard Lapchick, a white historian and sports activist, noted similarly. It was troubling that even in times when the conversation entered the national consciousness — when issues of race were spoken about en masse through the context of sports — that only black athletes were answering questions about racism or whiteness.

When the PGA was supposed to hold its 1990 championship at Shoal Creek Country Club, a golf course in Alabama that often denied black entrants to make a white-only club, Lapchick saw only one side telling their story.

“Many golf writers who were doing stories (on the club’s all-white membership policy) went only to black golfers like Lee Elder and a few others asking ‘What’s your position? What’s your position?’” he said. “Very few pressed the white golfers for their stance.”

Mike Henneman, a white pitcher for the Tigers in the 90s, agreed. He told Howard about the difference he saw.

“We probably are asked about racism less,” he said.

Mass media and others have peddled the idea for generations that racism is not white America’s problem, that the onus is on non-white people to fix an invention of white people.

The issue has become immediate, to some, in an America where hate groups, emboldened by the president, are marching in the streets and carrying out acts of domestic terror. Heidi Beirich, the leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and an expert on extremism, said in April “it’s like white people can’t handle the idea that there are devils in our midst.”

“White supremacy is an indigenous idea ― it’s from our culture,” Beirich said. “I think there’s a reluctance on the part of people to say, ‘I play a role in this. My culture plays a role in this.’”

Part of this has to be understood in the context of what white people and athletes are allegedly giving up to stand with their teammates and citizens. Black NFL players can’t be the only ones with something to gain from protest. White players can’t be seen as having something to lose with theirs. This dichotomy underlines the notion that standing for racial justice is a zero-sum game.

This is a piece of the problem. It demonstrates that whiteness in systems profiting from white supremacy, like sports leagues, is at best always praised and at worst tolerated as part of discourse. It creates a world where Steve Kerr and Gregg Poppovich can express similar views as Colin Kaepernick but stay employed.

“This tells us about the structures of racism. We see that no matter what a black athlete does there’s a level of condemnation and demonization,” Leonard said. “It demonstrates the way in which whiteness and blackness operates in these conversations. Whiteness is privileged. Blackness is rendered as suspect and criminal and undesirable.”

Protesters Demonstrate Against Police Shooting During Panthers Football Game In Charlotte Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

In America’s current political climate, to be an athlete and be at odds with the president is to immediately be seen as rebellious. To be against the status quo, to pop a bubble in the normalcy of racism, makes you the enemy to part of the country.

To stand up for others that don’t look like you creates the idea, the assumption, that something superior is required. That is a lie. It does not take courage for white athletes to do what is necessary to combat the insidiousness of racism. It’s merely avoiding the innate cowardice of wanting to fit in with the pack.

When black and brown bodies fall at the hands of police, of state-sanctioned violence, eventually you have to say that it’s not okay. But that alone is not enough. As a white athlete or person, to just say these statements is the bare minimum. It’s an early step in what should be a long process.

It’s easy to condemn racism or the societal ills that have propelled America to international dominance. However, there must be consistency. There must be care. That is courage. Not to just say “racism is bad” but to say it over and over again, especially when it feels like no one is listening. You say it not to be lauded for being brave, but because to do so is the only moral thing to do. White athletes do not become white saviors for doing what black athletes have done for decades.

They cannot become vaunted as heroes because of this, but this work is necessary regardless of approval. For them it means that, finally, they are doing what should be normal. There is power in their stand. Their statements and exhibitions isolate people positing the framework for radicalization. If your favorite white football player supports Kaepernick or Malcolm Jenkins or Bennett it kills the oxygen necessary to breed hate.

This has been the advice of Tenner, the old lawyer and judge fighting in Los Angeles in the sixties. It’s what Howard and Lapchick discussed in the nineties when progress moved at a snail’s pace. And it’s what Bennett is beckoning for in the present as change seems as distant as it’s ever been.

The role of the white athlete needs to be prominent during this moment of revitalized athlete activism, or it’ll just be another wasted flashpoint in history. But in it, there also has to be a clear understanding. Regardless of fan or media reaction to the white athlete’s stands, the player must stay level-headed. They must realize this is merely meeting the base level of what is needed to be a moral American.

This fight is one for equality, not for glory.

“It’s important to both recognize that part of being an ally or accomplice, whether it be white athletes, fans or white owners is doing the work without recognition,” Leonard said. “The work should be done. There shouldn’t be celebration. There shouldn’t be an effort to hand out a gold star.”

This post has been updated.

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