Since the eye-opening year of 2020, in which the inherent racism of corporate America was exposed through the Black Liberation protests that lit up the world, professional sports have been addressing their role in the exploitation of marginalized communities in the United States.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has welcomed its first woman as a general manager, who is also the second Asian American in the role. Minor League Baseball has hired its first coach who is a Black woman. The Washington Football Team changed its mascot from the original “Washington Redskins,” as its initial name was racist, derogatory and has long been refuted by Native American communities and allies. The MLB moved this season’s All-Star game out of Atlanta as a form of protest against the recent bill signed in Georgia that works to limit the accessibility of voting in the state. The Dallas Mavericks stopped playing the national anthem out of respect for those who don’t feel represented by its words or claims. The MLB, National Basketball Association (NBA), National Football League (NFL) and other sports organizations illuminated their scoreboards, painted their fields and adorned their uniforms with messages in support of the Black Liberation movement. The NBA had its first all-female broadcast team and opened voting polls in their arenas, and the NFL had its first ever female coach in the Super Bowl. A lot of history has been made this past year. It seems that professional sports are finally owning up to the discrimination that has plagued their organizations since their beginnings.
I am appreciative of all the work that is being done to combat racism and sexism in athletic spaces, but there is also a big part of me that is disappointed it took this long for these professional organizations to denounce racial discrimination and gender-based oppression. People had been pleading for the Redskins to change their name for decades, and the organization was aggressively opposed to this shift until it started to lose sponsors. Are any of the cosmetic changes like writing temporary messages on NBA courts and playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before NFL games actual commitments to supporting social justice movements? Or are these actions just performative tactics used to distract society from the organizations’ foundational discriminatory issues that they have no plans of changing in the long-term?
When I was younger, I used to be so disappointed when I would walk into Dick’s Sporting Goods, eager to pick out new softball gear for the upcoming season, only to see baseball equipment take up a whole section, while softball was left with a few measly shelves in the back of the store. I rarely ever saw Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) games advertised and shown on TV, and Black women were scarcely represented in the sports broadcast shows I watched. Because I rarely saw myself in these settings, a career at ESPN or in the MLB seemed impossible, but with these recent changes, I am optimistic of a future where these dreams will become a reality for me and other young girls with the same aspirations.
However, just like every other time when I finally find some reason to believe that widespread gender and racial equality is possible, I am quickly pulled away from my daydream when the headlines start popping up on the pathetic weight rooms the National Collegiate Athletic Association Women’s March Madness teams were given compared to the men’s teams. I’m reminded that the praise women in sports are given is misleading, after seeing the backlash ESPN Analyst Maria Taylor received just for having the opportunity to vote on the All-NBA team. The equality we need is far from a reality, and I wonder if any of the activism or culture changes these organizations are preaching for are genuine, or just another instance of performative activism.
The NBA and NFL especially have profited off of Black talent for decades. Why are they just now speaking up against the injustices that have always plagued the lives of their star athletes? “End Racism” looks great when it is painted in the End Zone, but Colin Kaepernick is still without a job. There is still so much work that needs to be done, and I am not confident that anything will change beyond the social justice commercials.
There is no excuse for why these organizations have waited so long to enact change. Racism has always been a problem, and athletes have been calling for reform for decades. John Carlos and Tommie Smith made a statement in support of the Black Power movement at the Olympics in 1968 and were banned from the games because of these protests. Muhammad Ali was vocal about civil and human rights, and for this he was punished by being stripped of his boxing titles. Wilma Rudolph refused to celebrate her Olympic medals at her hometown parade unless the segregation laws at these events were lifted. WNBA players have been denouncing racism for years. Jackie Robinson notoriously broke racial barriers in the MLB. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team has openly protested its lack of equal pay to the men’s team in recent years. There are so many more athletes in history, and more recently, who have been vocal about fighting against discrimination, but the changes starting to happen now are only surface-level.
I love watching sports, and it makes me happy to see the work that has begun to support marginalized communities. But a lot more work needs to be done before I can applaud professional sports organizations for the progress they have made. Talent has been marginalized, taken advantage of and exploited for way too long now. It is the expectation for these companies to be working towards equality and equity; it is not a courtesy nor a favor they are lending. They are currently doing the absolute bare minimum. It is these organizations’ duty to honestly evaluate how they are addressing injustices in this country and actively and expeditiously work to eradicate their inherent wrongdoings. They need to use their societal power and influence to call out the white supremacist patriarchy in this country. They have been compliant in discrimination for way too long.
MiC Columnist Maria Patton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.