O’Neil: Pete Carroll’s comments signal players are leading a change in sports
Pete Carroll wasn’t worried about whom he might anger on Saturday. If he was, he would have stuck to sports.
Instead, the Seattle Seahawks coach looked directly into the camera and described the need to remedy the unfairness and the danger Black people face in this country. As a press conference, it was a misnomer. Carroll took no questions and he wasn’t really speaking to the media, but through them.
“I want to talk to you guys about some stuff that’s on my heart,” he said.
He spoke for 14 minutes and 26 seconds, and was more blunt than I’ve ever heard him in describing the refusal of some Americans to recognize and understand racial inequality.
“I’ve learned is Black people know the truth,” Carroll said. “They know exactly what’s going on. It’s white people that don’t know. And it’s not that they’re not telling us. They’ve been telling us the stories, and we know what’s right and what’s wrong. We just have not been open to listen to it.”
I won’t continue summarizing Carroll’s speech. You can and by all means should hear what he had to say for yourself. I want to look at how Carroll’s statement fits into a broader pattern that emerged over the past week in which American sports franchises and their officials have made more pointed, substantial statements about race in general and police brutality in particular in the week after Jacob Blake was shot in the back by an officer in Wisconsin.
The Baltimore Ravens released a statement that called for the arrest of the officers responsible for two specific shootings of Black citizens and also demanded that a Republican senator bring an act for police reform to the floor for a vote. The Tennessee Titans released a video in which Ryan Tannehill – while standing next to his Black teammate Kevin Byard – stated “this country was founded on racist ideas with slaves being brought here from the day of foundation.”
Compare that to the approach teams took four years ago when the NFL did everything it could to mute the attention being aimed at the league as Colin Kaepernick and other players protested police brutality. It’s different from what happened earlier this year, too. Most NFL teams released statements three months ago after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, but those statements used general values like equality and racial justice and most omitted the topic of policing entirely. The league’s commissioner Roger Goodell had to be asked specifically by players before he said, “Black Lives Matter.”
What Carroll said Saturday made the statements from earlier this year feel lukewarm. He was unflinching in describing the reluctance some people have in recognizing the racism that runs through the history of our country to the present day: “We’ve been unwilling to accept the real history. We’ve been taught a false history of what happened in this country. We’ve been basing things on false premises, and it has not been about equality for all. It has not been about freedom for all. It has not been for opportunity for all.”
Carroll pointed to his players as the best teachers, citing the past six years specifically as being particularly enlightening. But I know Carroll’s political beliefs too well to think his statement on Saturday was a sudden epiphany or realization. And while I have no doubt that he has learned and deepened his understanding of racial inequality over the past six years, I think the difference on Saturday was that he didn’t pull back on his punches. He did not worry about who was going to be bothered by what he had to say.
He’s not alone. That decision is being made by other coaches and entire franchises as well, and it’s almost impossible to state how much of a departure this is from the corporate approach of American sports over the past 30 years. It’s an M.O. best summed up by a single quote: “Republicans buy shoes, too.” This statement is often attributed to Michael Jordan, and it has come to be shorthand for a business-first approach in which an athlete – and by extension a team – does not say anything that will endanger the financial support of a fan or a potential fan.
People have equated this to keeping politics out of sports, but that’s not at all true. It’s keeping any topic that is politically divisive out of sports. Politics have always been intertwined with sports. The performance of the national anthem is overtly political. So are jet-fighter flyovers and on-field military demonstrations before the game, and the Olympics are flat-out competitions between rival nation-states. These political displays aren’t seen as controversial, though, which is to say that they don’t bother a sufficient number of people that the owners have to be worried about mad fans or financial boycotts.
Race and police brutality are different. These are topics that can – and do – arouse not only emotions but animosity among fans and can spur financial boycotts, which is why teams for so long sought to straddle the fence when it came to these sort of touchy subjects. That was the economically advisable right.
Now, it seems some teams are picking a side, and while I wonder how many fans withdraw support, I don’t doubt that some will. The question I have is, why? Why have the teams – the businesses – stopped worrying about that?
Is it because they feel an ethical or moral calling to advocate for racial equity. If that’s the case, why did it take so long? Is it that the increasingly pitched political climate has created clear fault lines and every one is feeling compelled to take a side, even teams that would rather appeal to fans across political parties? Maybe. The widening divide has made it harder to be agnostic.
But I think it’s something else: the players. They’re not going to shut up and play. The Milwaukee Bucks demonstrated exactly that on Wednesday when they did not emerge from their locker room for a playoff game against the Orlando Magic. They weren’t going to swallow their grief, their anger and perform their job as scheduled. They were not going to stick to sports because sports weren’t in fact their priority at that point, and if the country wasn’t going to recognize the pain and danger they feel as Black men in America, they weren’t all that interested in providing entertainment for adulation and applause.
I’m not ready to say that I think teams are afraid that their players will stop working, but that’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. What I do know is that these teams which have for decades tried to remain fairly neutral in the eyes of consumers are showing support for their players values. This – in and of itself – is remarkable because the past 40 years or so has seen a pretty much continuous decline in the power of organized labor here in America, and yet here you have multi-billion dollar companies – most of which are owned and operated by white men – changing their public messaging to match the values and goals of their players, most of whom are Black.
While I’m not naïve enough to think this situation is permanent, it doesn’t make it any less significant what is happening. As for why it’s happening, well, I think Carroll gave a pretty strong hint on Saturday when he pointed to his players.
“They’ve taken this opportunity to teach us more and deeper about what the life of a Black man is like in America,” Carroll said, “Black men and women. And they’ve been compelled to speak out, more than ever. There has been less fear and less concern of what’s going to happen.”
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