Athletics, particularly basketball and football, are among the few professions where Black representation is a norm. The scarcity of Black representation makes the voices of Black athletes needed– especially in times of social unrest


Have you ever read the play “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward?

The play debuted off-Broadway in fall 1965 and is a satirical tale of an imaginary Southern town where all the Black people mysteriously vanished. The white men and women are left to shine their own shoes, tend to their own children, wash their own car, among other jobs that Black people mostly did. 

Howard University theatre professor Denise J. Hart told the Washington Post that she has taught the play for 16 semesters at Howard, noting the play’s excellent framework for facilitation of relevant discussion of the Black American plight. 

When a colleague suggested to Hart that the play was obsolete, Hart responded: “I was dismayed that a play with such rich themes relevant to the African American experience was being relegated to being ‘dated.’”

While the play’s debut was nearly 40 years ago, Hart is correct in saying that the themes of the play are still relevant today. Just take a look at the issues that flooded our Twitter feeds this past summer. 

Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake became household names because they were victims of police brutality.

Being Black in America means that there is a possibility of becoming a household name not for an accomplishment — but for wrongfully being murdered by the men and women who are sworn to protect you.

Being Black in America is the possibility of being murdered for ‘looking suspicious.’ After the passing of a Black American by a cop, people then dig into the past of the victim to justify the execution. Black Americans fear being next. 


The Professional Athlete’s Stance

Black representation within positions of authority is scarce in many professions. Additionally, Black voices are often utilized for conversations about trauma to only then be excluded when race topics are no longer trending.

Professional athletics, particularly the WNBA, NBA, and NFL, are among the few professions where Black representation is a norm. Black men and women within these leagues are household names because of their craft. They are the consistent visibility of Black success for young Black boys and girls. They are household names for the right reason.

NBA coach Doc Rivers is a household name, as he has coached in the NBA for over 20 years. Following the Jacob Blake shooting, Rivers shared his thoughts during NBA media availability on August 25th.

“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said of the Republican National Convention. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”

Rivers’ message went viral, this not being the first time he has taken a stand against racism. 

Almost 16-hours after River’s speech, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their Game five matchup against the Orlando Magic.

The Bucks stayed in their locker room — carrying out a strike in response to the Blake shooting. Aside from the Blake shooting taking place in the Buck’s home state of Wisconsin, the Bucks also have personal experience with police brutality. 

Bucks guard Sterling Brown had an encounter with the Milwaukee police department in January of 2018, where more than six officers assaulted him for illegally parking his car across a handicap spot.

The other scheduled NBA playoff games were postponed, along with WNBA, MLB and NHL games, as players across sports refused to play in response to the injustice.

The players were met with mixed responses.

TNT analyst and former Houston Rocket, Kenny “The Jet” Smith walked off the broadcast set in solidarity with the players.

Meanwhile, the White House sent a different message President Trump said,“I don’t know much about the NBA protests. I know their ratings have been very bad because I think people are a little tired of the NBA,” said the president. “They’ve become like a political organization and that’s not a good thing. I don’t think that’s a good thing for sports or for the country.”

Social media and talk shows were split, as fans wanted to show support while others just wanted to watch the game they love without talk of the Black Lives Matter movement. 


The Case of the Black College Athlete

It is obviously controversial for professional Black athletes to use their voices. However, the platform of a black college athlete is often overlooked. 

While professional athletes have platforms that reach millions, college athletes do not have that same luxury. 

Black student-athletes generate millions for their universities, but they do not generate that same money for themselves. They do not have the luxury of being able to not play in protest. 

I asked Azusa Pacific University track and field indoor All American Jaylah Walker about how she feels the sports fan bases view athletes, and she said she believes that Black athletes are objectified as agents of entertainment.

No. We are objectified as entertainment on the professional scale,” Walker said. “People come to support us and root for their team but they do not support our identities.”

Academy of Art Professor and Head Women’s Basketball Coach Krystle Evans explained that for this reason, she refers to her athletes accomplishments off the court before ever mentioning the things they do on the court — leaving that for last.

“If you were to ask a fan, who doesn’t see that we always talk about the person first, that fan would only really care about the athletic part,” Evans said. “That’s all they want to talk about regardless of how much we’re talking about how they are people. From a fan, if you only want to be entertained and not being engaged in this process of what athletics is really about, then that’s all they will see. They choose what they want to see.” 

Evans is correct. Audiences choose what they want to see. We want athletes to simply play the game. Why is it that singers are able to comment on films? Shouldn’t they stick to vocals? Why is it that politicians can talk about sports? Shouldn’t they stick to politics? 

Audiences respect other professionals for their craft and accept their opinions until an athlete says something that makes us uncomfortable. 

It seems that athletes, particularly Black athletes, are not accepted as their whole self — only their athletic self.

Evans grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where she attended Pacific Palisades High School before finishing her high school career at Crenshaw High School. She would eventually attend UCLA. Less than 1% of Evans’ graduating class that walked the stage at UCLA was Black. She wanted to grow that percentage through her work. 

Evans said that she wants other Black students to see her succeed so that they know that they can do it too. Evans believes that the younger generation can see that success is feasible by them seeing her work for her accomplishments.

ArtU point guard Dante Williams had a similar experience. Growing up in Compton, CA., his mother didn’t feel comfortable sending him to a school near his home because of the opportunity gap that inner city schools face. Instead, he had to take the freeway to Lakewood High School before transferring to St. Anthony High School — a private school.

Williams, like Evans, has had a unique journey of navigating different demographics during his academic career. Yet, Williams’ story, like that of many other athletes, isn’t regarded when he is seen on the court or on a poster. Williams, like many Black athletes, wants to see that change.

“We have to use our voices,” Williams said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest way for us to change how we are seen.” 

Walker, a Riverside native, says that her city introduced her to diversity within all aspects of life, from ethnic backgrounds to socioeconomic status. Walker also understands that America limits athletes to their sports and makes generalizations about Black identities.

“Americans tend to make everything political so when opinions come from a politician, it is expected,” Walker said. “However, people often stereotype athletes to be ‘dumb jocks.’ So when an athlete responds to social issues going on, they believe it is not their place. They believe that it is not their place to have opinions nor respond to social issues.”

Black athletes make up 46% of NCAA Men’s Basketball and 49% of NCAA Men’s Division I Football — NCAA’s two highest-grossing sports. Black athletes also face the harsh realities of being Black in America once they are away from their sports.

In 1980, Knicks legend and Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing went on a college visit to North Carolina Chapel Hill, where he intended to commit. Unfortunately, the reality of North Carolina changed Ewing’s mind.

“North Carolina was a very good school, but when I went down there, they put me in that Carolina Inn, and there was a big Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina when I was there,” Ewing said on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “And I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m not coming down here. I’m staying my butt back in Boston.'”

In summer 2020, Arizona State football players Jordan Clark, Nolan Matthews and T Lee were called racial slurs at a Whataburger.

The group of men were unable to go inside of the food chain due to COVID-19 restrictions, and did not have a car. They asked a white woman if she would order food for them in the drive-thru, supplying her with the money for their order. As they sat on a wall away from the window, the woman complained to the manager that they harassed her.

The manager comped the woman’s meal in response, at which point she reportedly yelled, “Thanks for the free food [N-word].” 

The manager, unfazed by what had happened, handed the woman her food, told the players they were in the wrong and threatened to call the police on them.

When we see Lebron James and Bubba Wallace articulate the Black plight and take action to make change, we are seeing adults who have learned how to navigate their profession while staying true to their identity as Black Americans.

“It was empowering and inspiring to see these athletes use their platform and speak out against the social injustices taking places in our nation, especially after Kapernick essentially lost his career over taking a knee,” Walker said. “These athletes are risking everything to stand on the side of justice; on the side of humanity.”

College is a place where students learn the craft of their desired profession. Meanwhile, college students are also developing abstract thinking abilities — changing their ability to think about themselves, others and the world around them. College athletes are learning how to navigate within their professions as well as articulate their plight. 

Athletes provide their services to universities, who in turn reward them with scholarship compensation but that does not match the revenue they bring. However, playing in college athletics isn’t about money — it is supposed to be about the growth of a holistic person. 

Growth means a lot of things — learning financial literacy, understanding resume building or support. In simple terms, support is defined as help or assistance. For Black athletes, support means showing empathy and awareness towards situations affecting the Black community. 

June was a trying month for Black Americans. The wrongful deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aburey, Elijah McClain and George Floyd were dominant topics in the media. Protests were happening, and the video of Floyd’s death was on every avenue of social media.

Black Americans saw a man that looked like them suffocate for eight minutes. Williams said that he was at a loss of words after seeing the video of Floyd’s murder.

“I don’t know how you can put your knee on somebody’s neck for that amount of time and think that is going to serve a good purpose,” Williams said. “It was a lot to take in. Everything was back to back to back, nonstop.”

Walker felt the same, extremely puzzled by the fact that situations like Floyd’s were still taking place in 2020.

“I’m pretty sure I cried the first time I watched the video,” Walker said. “It was heartbreaking that in 2020, people don’t see anything wrong with the officer’s behavior. Some people are even justifying his actions by looking up Floyd’s past. It does not matter whether a person is guilty, innocent or has committed crimes in the past; everyone should have a right to due process and the presumption of innocence. George Floyd was not given that. All the cops should have been arrested the same day. People need to be more educated about people-of-color’s struggles in America.”

Walker then expressed that she feels unrepresented in the current state of American society.

“I feel unrepresented in a lot of aspects of life,” Walker said. “Especially after an officer, who shot and killed Breonna Taylor was charged for the shots missed over the body hit, it makes the lives of a Black women feel worthless. To the judges in Louisiana, windows and walls are more significant than a Black woman’s life.”  

Evans had a different reaction to the video, and the state that these cases left America in.

“What makes George Floyd different from Emmett Till?” Evans asked. “Why are we acting like this isn’t the norm? People around me were shocked. They were shocked and I was frustrated that we were acting like this was something new. I was disheartened because I never feel like things are going to change.” 

Black America was grieving. Black athletes within the NCAA were at home, dealing with their emotions from these cases and trying to maintain their routines as athletes. 

Meanwhile, the very schools that they represent were silent. Williams said that ArtU was silent on the matter until he called them out via social media.

“I called out my own school on it,” Williams said. “They didn’t say anything until I started putting pressure on them. I don’t know if they had planned to but it took too long for me. So I started to call them out. And then by the time they did it, I still wasn’t satisfied because I feel like they only did something because I provoked them to.”

APU took a personal approach, with President Paul Ferguson personally reaching out to the school community via email. Aside from that, the university was rather silent on the matter as well.

“Our president sent an email addressing the racism happening after Floyd’s murder but that was about it,” Walker said. “However, my coaches acknowledged what was happening, prayed, and continue to be open for conversation.”

Walker and Williams both have played in the Pacific West Conference for more than three years, contributing athletically and academically to the conference. Yet, neither could recall the Pacwest releasing a statement or email addressing the unrest that plagued the summer.

Williams explained how the Pacwest and universities could further support their Black athletes during these times.

“Speak up for us,” Williams said. “Not just the Black people, everyone. I would like to have seen my school more involved. I feel that they tried to stay out the way of it, and this moment is bigger than that. That’s the problem. People try to avoid what’s going on or try to stay silent and that’s a part of the problem.”


How To Support Black Athletes

The first step to supporting Black athletes is accepting their dominating identity. Being a Black person trumps any other identity tied to that person — college athletes included. 

The next step is understanding allyship.

Being an ally isn’t just agreeing or posting a trendy meme — it is being willing to take action. Being an ally means standing against oppression and wanting to create true equality.

Walker believes that non-people of color can play the role of an ally through educating themselves and others.

They can educate themselves about the problems happening in our country and advocate for equality and justice within their communities, even though they will never truly understand what it means to be a person-of-color in America,” Walker said.

Evans — having the experience of being a former player, a coach, an administrator and professor — said that the biggest step will be delving into uncomfortable conversations.

“We have to do a better job of listening to each other, to heal and not just to respond. We all come from different walks of life, and are in different places in our lives. There’s a lot to learn from those differences. We can find value in each other’s differences, right, wrong or ugly. When we can look at the ugly truths embedded in our history as a country, then we can actually move forward in a healthy manner,” said Evans. 

Black athletes dazzle crowds when they are on the field but are still treated like every Black American when they walk the streets.

This is why Black athletes — professional and collegiate — can not shut up and dribble. This is why Naomi Osaka reaching out to Trayvon Martin’s family, while wearing different masks with the names of police brutality victims during her U.S. Open run is so important. This is why Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to bring awareness to social injustice and then starting the ‘Know Your Rights Camp’ was needed. This is why the Buck’s protest was the only answer.

These conversations are uncomfortable but are not as uncomfortable as watching a person slowly suffocate like Floyd. These conversations do not hold a candle to the hurt caused by burying your child or sibling because they didn’t look like they belonged. These conversations are nothing compared to a person, who looks like you, goes without justice time and time again. 

In 1965, “Day of Absence” forced white audiences to consider the value that Black lives played in their lives. In 2020, Black athletes are using their platforms to force white audiences to consider the value of Black lives in their lives. 

The same problems persist, just in a different era. Until these problems cease to exist, Black athletes will continue to use their voice beyond their game. Their experience as being a Black person trumps the fact that they just happen to play a sport. Their identity as a Black person will continue to remain on the forefront.