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How BLM invigorated the fight for racial equality in the sporting world

For many, 2020 will be remembered as the year that the Black Lives Matter movement hit the headlines.  The killing of George Floyd sparked a fire of protest around the world not seen before.

But it is important to state that the BLM protests were not just about police brutality.  Though the death of African Americans at the hands of the police may have been the initial inspiration, Black Lives Matter has morphed into something much larger. 

The fire and passion of those BLM protests shone a light on racial inequality and institutional racism in all walks of life. The long-established work of campaigners in areas of health, employment and education, as well as criminal justice, have all being given more credence and consideration because of the movement.

This wave of consciousness even reached the arena of sport. Though the movement dominated the headlines during the summer of 2020, the genesis started a few years earlier.

In 2014, basketball player LeBron James wore a "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt while warming up for a game, joining other professional athletes in protesting the death of Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe” were Garner’s final words after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold during an altercation on Staten Island. The phrase later become a rallying cry for protesters against police brutality.
 

In August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the pre-game national anthem to protest about racial injustice and police brutality. His actions attracted criticism from the sport’s governing body and the then President Donald Trump, and eventually left him without a team.

But by 2020, athletes around the world were following his lead.

NBA

In 2018 during an interview with ESPN, Le Bron James discussed the challenges that come with being a black public figure in America. He also discussed politics and President Trump.

The push-back was swift. Journalist Laura Ingraham responded to his comments, calling them "barely intelligible" and "ungrammatical" on her program on Fox News.

"It's always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball," she said. "Keep the political comments to yourselves. ... Shut up and dribble."

But James and his NBA colleagues did not shut up. In July 2020, as the league returned for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic suspended the season in March, NBA teams wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts, bowed their heads and took a knee during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.

In August, the Milwaukee Bucks went even further and opted not to play in a playoff game against the Orlando Magic, in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The rest of the NBA teams still participating followed suit – as did teams and players in other sports – and no NBA games were played for three days. 

Tennis

In September of 2020 tennis player Naomi Osaka chose to make a visual statement using the platform of the US Open.

Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and Haitian father, put her activism front-and-centre from the start of the tournament, wearing a mask to honour Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed by police officers who burst into her apartment in March. Osaka would go on to recognise seven different African Americans killed by the police - one for each of the seven rounds of the tournament.

After her final victory over Victoria Azarenka, she was asked what message she hoped to send with her masks, she turned the question on her interviewer. "What was the message that you got? The point is to make people start talking," she said.

Football

In the UK, football has been marred by racism from the terraces as well as on the pitch for decades. 2020 was the year when the tired and ailing Kick Racism Out of Football campaign was reinvigorated by BLM.

During the restart that followed the suspension of football owing to the coronavirus pandemic, players wore badges endorsing Black Lives Matter for all nine match days. it was a move universally approved by the players but also, unusually, supported by the Premier League.

But it was not universally embraced by all fans. In June, a fan of Burnley FC paid a pilot to fly over the Etihad Stadium with a banner reading "White Lives Matter" just moments after the players took a knee before their match against Manchester City. And in December Millwall fans booed their own players for taking the knee before their match against Derby County.

But 2020 was also the year when teams did not hesitate to walk off the pitch if one of their teammates was racially abused, something that black players had to suffer in silence in previous decades. When premiership footballers took the knee, they were not just remembering George Floyd – they were also stating that they will no longer tolerate racist abuse and highlighting the dearth of black managers at senior levels.

Formula 1

When Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton chose to make gestures of solidarity after races, he was also drawing attention to the institutional barriers within his own sport – something that senior officials often don’t want to acknowledge or address.

The 1978 F1 champion Mario Andretti, said that Hamilton is actually "creating a problem that does not exist." According to Sky Sports, Andretti told Chilean media outlet El Mercurio: "I have a lot of respect for Lewis, but why become a militant? He's always been accepted, and he's earned everyone's respect.  I think the whole point of this is pretentious."

But Hamilton was not just making gestures.  He took it upon himself to create his own commission to tackle the issues he was highlighting.

The Commission had been in development since December 2019 but publicly launched in June 2020 to coincide with the heightened media and public interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, and greater scrutiny of race inequality in society. The Commission officially began on September 1st, 2020 and will run for nine months. Writing in a column for The Sunday Times  the six-time champion said:

"Despite my success in the sport, the institutional barriers that have kept F1 highly exclusive persist. It is not enough to point to me, or to a single new black hire, as a meaningful example of progress. Thousands of people are employed across this industry and that group needs to be more representative of society. For this reason, I have been working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create The Hamilton Commission, a research partnership dedicated to exploring how motorsport can be used as a vehicle to engage more young people from black backgrounds with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and, ultimately, employ them on our teams or in other engineering sectors."

The Hamilton Commission is co-chaired by Hamilton and Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering.  The Board of Commissioners is an independent group made up of 14 experts and industry leaders from within the UK who have been selected to represent a wide range of expertise spanning critical areas of influence including motorsport, engineering, schools, community and youth groups.

Their responsibilities will be to review and inform the research methodology; to examine the research findings and help identify the key challenges and opportunities facing young Black people entering STEM careers, particularly in UK motorsport; and to advise on the final actions and recommendations that result from the research.

Following engagement and consultation with motorsport communities within the UK, the final evidence and recommendations will be published and taken directly to key stakeholders who can help implement change.

On the Board of Commissioners is BTEG’s own Director Jeremy Crook OBE. Speaking of BTEG’s involvement Jeremy said

" BTEG’s goal is to see black people represented in every sector and at every level. Motorsport is high profile and offers fantastic opportunities in engineering, science and technology and we have no doubt there are talented young black people who would love the chance to work in this exciting sector. The talent pipeline to motorsport careers involves schools, colleges, universities, access to quality careers guidance and crucially motorsport employers. We want to see a clear road map for black children and young people to motorsport careers and any barriers to change identified and removed through the Commission’s work."

2020 was the year that the mainstream started to realise that racism is not something that ended when slavery was abolished, or when Barack Obama was elected President.  That it is not just nasty people hurling racial epithets, or Hitler salutes from neo-Nazis. It is present in boardrooms and parliaments right now, and all around the world. The BLM movement empowered professional athletes to use their platform to promote the cause.

Those on the right try and dismiss BLM in any way they can.  They say that police brutality like that doesn’t happen in this country, so such protests are not needed.  They say that BLM has now morphed into a left-wing political party that wants to defund the police and so support should be withheld. 

But thanks to BLM, the demands for fairness and equality that campaigning organisations like BTEG have been making for years are finally being addressed.

Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

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