More Than Just a Game Part II: From Awareness to Action

For coaches of all levels, numerous charged responses to the NFL protests may make unpacking the events seem daunting. Do not be discouraged! If you read Part I, you are already more familiar with the relationship between sport and social order/disorder and concepts central to the debate: civic responsibility and respect. Athletes, coaches, and public officials who oppose those standing against racial injustice draw on civic responsibility and respect—arguing that the flag and the National Anthem are sacred symbols. That we have a responsibility to respect the symbols that represent the freedoms our country affords us and the service men and women who fight to protect those liberties. Others advocate more generally to preserve sport as a “sacred” ground where we can all “just play the game”. On the field, no matter your creed or color, individuals are judged solely by their athletic abilities.

A final voice to consider in the conversation comes from NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, who issued the following statement:

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Goodell’s placating message may seem to take a moral high ground; yet, context matters. Just as historical context can inform an understanding of the role that sport has in promoting social order/disorder, present context can allow us to critically examine his response. Consider: approximately 70 percent of NFL players are Black men—relative to six percent of the U.S. population, and Goodell earns close to $31 million a year (Moore, 2015). While the commissioner’s tolerant tone may appear altruistic, Goodell’s word choice is deliberate and action tied to self-interest. Instead of identifying the systematic oppression of African Americans, he cloaks the issue in color neutral language (i.e., “a lack of respect for the NFL [and] all of our players”). Tolerance serves his best interest: to avoid complete insurrection. After pre-game protests, the competition goes on, and the money comes. Acknowledgement of the protests, though a slight relinquishing of control, sustains order.

Far from the color neutral world that Goodell imagines, we do not live in a colorblind society. Racism is much more than unfavorable impressions of others. Racism is about privilege (Kendi, 2017). Racial hierarchies determine who gets “freedoms”—not just those enumerated by law, but tangible benefits (i.e., quality education, jobs, and housing). Sown into the fabric of our country—in all its exceptionalism—is a legacy of racist ideas that sprung up to justify the inequitable distribution of resources to certain groups over others. (For a history of these racist ideas read Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning.) What is so deeply tragic about this history is how embedded racist ideas are in the founding of the United States—and our present. The racist ideas held by colonial preachers and intellectuals rationalized chattel slavery. Enlightenment scholars (e.g., John Locke) racialized and whitened definitions of freedom, civilization, and beauty. Following American slavery, those ideas prevented resistance against segregation and the stark racial disparities in incarceration rates, police killings, and wealth presently (Kendi, 2017). While this history does feature moments of racial progress—such as Obama’s presidency—these progressive steps often coincide with white self-interest (e.g., Goodell’s statement) and the simultaneous progression of racism—Trump America.

When we disconnect our present from its historical roots, we fail to understand who has been afforded the “liberties” for which our Constitution grants and U.S. soldiers valiantly fight. We overlook the origins of our explicit and implicit biases, and institutional disparities. We fail to see that the experience of standing before the flag may vary. While I can only validly speak to my experience, for some people of color this national symbol may evoke feelings of oppression, not protection. Though we may all be equal before the law, history and reality suggest otherwise.

For amateur level coaches, athlete activism may seem unrelated to our practice or too complicated and uncomfortable of an issue to discuss with our student-athletes. On the contrary, these issues are central to our mission to help athletes develop as players and people.

As coaches, how do we tackle social issues and injustices that are an integral part of sport?

1)  Reflect on your privilege. Coaches have privilege. The player-coach dynamic puts us in a position of power, even with our varying levels of sport expertise. Coaches are also unique individuals with distinct histories and identities that advantage and disadvantage us. As a white, upper-middle class female coach, I have a great deal of privilege. My race and class afford me opportunities that turn passion, hard work, and persistence into success. This history informs my coaching philosophy and practice, and how I position myself in relation to my players. To understand others’ histories and privilege (or lack thereof), coaches must first be aware of their own. Only when we acknowledge our own privilege can we better identify its absence, and live with a greater sensitivity to those with different lived experiences.

2) Acknowledge your athlete’s story. When our student-athletes step onto their sport stage, they bring with them unique experiences, struggles, and identities. Coaches need to be aware of these histories. We build our knowledge of these stories by intentionally carving out time to ask our athletes questions about who they are and actively listening to them. We can be as deliberate about cultivating relatedness as we are with allocating time for players’ technical/tactical development. In doing so, coaches can create inclusive climates that honor each athlete’s individual identity.

3) Model vulnerability and take action. Coaches need to be aware of whether, and when, we dismissively cast aside athlete activism as a “distraction” from the game. We need to reflect on why we respond this way. As coaches, we challenge our athletes to push themselves, to get uncomfortable. We should heed—and model— this advice. Our work guiding young people to become better players and people should not just take place when the job is convenient and comfortable (which is especially the case when our identities afford us significant privilege). Instead, we should lean into the discomfort and realize that socially responsible action can take many forms. Visible protest (e.g., kneeling during the Nation Anthem or marching in a Black Lives Matter demonstration) is social action, but not the only meaningful action. When we engage our athletes in difficult conversations by asking questions, encouraging critical thought about our stories, others’ history, and our social world, we take action. This initiative is no different from the coaching that we regularly do when we encourage athletes to take risks, test their limits, and commit to a collective vision.

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