Retired athletes, sports talk shows take the lead in social justice conversations

Chris Webber’s moving comments last week in support of NBA players, who boycotted the playoffs after the Jacob Blake shoot, generated millions of views because they came from the heart and touched on sensitive topics.

But for Webber and other black commentators who have discussed this week’s call to action in sports, it was not uncommon to discuss such topics. The only difference is that this time he spoke in front of a live TV audience.

“These are conversations I have had with my mom since I was 5 years old. It’s nothing I haven’t said a thousand times before, but no one has heard it,” Webber said. by phone from the NBA bubble at Walt Disney. World in Florida. “These are the same conversations and I hope something will happen.”

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On-air conversations about race are common in sports media because they are more diverse, especially with more black talent on air, than the rest of the news media, where many organizations have engaged this. year to hire more minorities. Former athletes have a pipeline to advance in sports media as commentators, and many popular shows feature a black man or woman as the host.

Amid a dizzying week of news that included the Republican National Convention, the coronavirus pandemic and protests over Blake’s shooting by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sports networks devoted much of their programming to discussions of social and racial injustice. Boycotts of players from multiple leagues – canceled games in NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, and NFL players not training – allowed televised sports to deviate from the storyline usual.

These conversations have taken different forms. TNT’s Kenny Smith showed his solidarity with the players by leaving the “Inside the NBA” set on Wednesday. On Thursday, NFL Network was scheduled to broadcast the Los Angeles Chargers’ first practice at SoFI Stadium. Instead, it turned into a forum for players to express their feelings about racial and social issues after training was canceled.

Talk shows on ESPN and FS1, normally devoted to debates about teams, players and coaches, have become forums for discussing experiences with racism.

“I have young nephews and had to tell them about death before they even saw a movie,” Webber said in his comments on TNT Wednesday.

CBS studio host James Brown, who has been a part of network television for 36 years, said his conversations with players and managers have shown that athletes feel at a crossroads.

“They don’t feel like something big is being done by leaders across the country that they aren’t serious about the changes,” Brown said. “Athletes also feel a moral obligation to represent the marginalized and stand up for that until they see serious change.”

Former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho attempted to create some of these changes himself. In addition to interviewing athletes on FS1’s “Speak for Yourself”, he launched a YouTube series called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man”. Acho is expected to release a book of the same title in November.

“I firmly believe that if the white person is your problem, only the white person can be the solution,” Acho said in his first episode.

Among his guests were actor Matthew McConaughey and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“There are topics that can be intimidating to others, but for me being able to bring them up is the most rewarding,” said Acho. “I have seen a lot of encouraging talk on different shows this week. You have to tackle issues that affect everyone’s lives. You talk about life and death, not wins and losses.”

ESPN commentator Jalen Rose, who was Webber’s Michigan teammate, said conversations about social justice and race relations can be emotionally and physically draining, but he believes they are signs of progress.

“To use a sporting analogy, I see this as an attempt to gain a position on the court. If you look at the scoreboard, it’s 465 years (since slavery) to zero and that’s the first quarter and you know you’re not going to win the game, but you’ve got to go out there and do your best and move the ball forward for the people following you, ”Rose said.“ You can get four or five first tries. , then receive a pass interference call, but when you kick you still gain a position on the court. It must be the marathon and the long game that can be frustrating, but these are the cards that we have been dealt with. “

Brown, who also hosts the NFL Broadcasting Boot Camp for players annually, said current and former athletes receive more respect and attention when they talk about issues outside of sport.

“It’s hurtful – because I’m an older athlete – to say that all we can do is play ball and not engage. We’re husbands and grandfathers. Marginalizing athletes is wrong. The link between sport and civic action is there, ”said Brown mentioned.

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Brown added that athletes who speak out need to be articulate, informed and aware that their words matter.

Just two years ago, Jimmy Pitaro took over the presidency of ESPN and issued an edict to “stick to sport” for on-air talent. But the interpretation of these words has evolved. When social unrest intersects with sport, ESPN won’t ignore the subject.

For Rose, the era of athletes sticking to the sport is over – in part because President Donald Trump didn’t hesitate to criticize NBA and NFL players who disagree with him. .

“If he recognizes the NFL players who are on their knees and says, ‘They deserve to be fired,’ it now becomes a sports topic. If one of the Atlanta Dream owners talks about the Black Lives Matter movement in derogatory terms, that now becomes a topic. When Herschel Walker or Brian Urlacher say what they want to say about politics, then that’s going to become a topic, ”Rose said.“ You understand that there is will have people who are upset, but I applaud the NBA, ESPN and the national media for allowing people to speak both ways. “

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