Dave Zirin: How the Mike Brown killing changed US sport

August 14, 2015

The St Louis Rams players braved even greater hostility by entering with their hands raised in support of the Ferguson protesters and their “hands up, don't shoot” slogan.

The police killing last August of unarmed 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests have sparked a new Black freedom struggle and forever changed this country.

Just like the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s, this new movement has reflected itself dramatically in the world of sports. It is not a carbon copy of the ’60s by any stretch of the imagination. But neither is the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Throughout the past year, I have written about the ways in which the #BlackLivesMatter and post-Ferguson movement has intersected with the world of sports. Not because I think it is merely an interesting development to report, but because there is ample evidence that professional athletes have played and can continue to play a pivotal role in this struggle.

In a nation where segregation by race and economics has become even more an entrenched reality in recent decades — and a nation where most residents don't have to see police as a symbol of fear for their physical safety — athletes have the ability to act as a transmission belt of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and reach the white majority.

They have the capacity to both sever segregation and puncture privilege and enter space — like sports radio or ESPN — where people not engaging with this movement are confronted with its truths.

A recent poll showed that over the past year, the number of white people who see racism as an issue that demands governmental action has risen from 37% to 53%. That number is lower than it needs to be, but it is a start.

I believe the actions of athletes — from high school students to the college women at Berkeley and Notre Dame, from the NBA superstars like LeBron James and Derrick Rose to Serena Williams — have played a role in opening people's eyes.

It all started with the decision by the Brown family to bury Michael with the hat of his favourite team, the St Louis Cardinals. It then became so very much more.

Without the people of Ferguson themselves, who decided to go outside the stadium where the St Louis Cardinals play to brave racist taunts, and then inside the stadium where the St Louis Rams players braved even greater hostility by entering with their hands raised in support of the Ferguson protesters and their “hands up, don't shoot” slogan, these connections may have never sparked.

And of course, without the people of Ferguson who bravely faced off against a racist police force armed with militarised hardware, an unfeeling media, and a political system set up to ignore their concerns, we would collectively be so much further behind.

[Abridged from Edge Of Sports, where you can find the full list of Dave Zirin's articles on race and sport over the past year.]

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