On one level, it was the most unremarkable of gestures, the kind of support that anyone should expect from a good friend.
Yet Eagles defensive end Chris Long’s decision to put his arm around teammate Malcolm Jenkins during Thursday night’s preseason game against the Bills may have signaled a radical change in professional sports.
Long, who is white, became the first player to very visibly support a black teammate’s protest during the national anthem. The next day, Seattle’s Justin Britt followed his lead by putting his hand on the shoulder of Michael Bennett as he chose to sit through the national anthem before a Seahawks-Chargers game.
The question now is: Will more white athletes stand up and do the same? With the images of white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, no longer a daily news story, will white athletes continue to risk their careers to support their black teammates?
“What Chris Long did is extremely important because it’s so rare,” said Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown sociology professor. “More white athletes should say something. These athletes play every day with black athletes and they must know they are suffering. If you’re Tom Brady, how can you not know what’s going on with Malcolm Jenkins, your receiver?”
Dyson was at Madison Square Garden on Sunday to moderate a panel that included members from the media, New York Police Department, the Liberty organization and community activists. The discussion was held as part of the Liberty’s “Unity Game,” which had been planned in advance of last weekend’s white power demonstration.
It seemed appropriate that the game featured Minnesota and the Liberty, two of the most socially active teams in professional sports. A full month before Colin Kaepernick began his protest by sitting for the national anthem during last year’s preseason, WNBA players were taking political stands.
It started on July 9 when the Lynx wore black warm-up T-shirts honoring both the memory of two black men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and five members of the Dallas police department ambushed and killed in apparent retaliation for police killings. The next day, during warm-ups before a game, the Liberty wore black T-shirts that said “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5.”
Both teams and members of the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever initially were fined for defying a WNBA directive to stop wearing the shirts. But after a public outcry, the fine was rescinded.
Before Sunday’s game, both teams linked arms in a circle along with representatives from the NYPD and Covenant House as the national anthem was sung. The Unity Game, which was held in partnership with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), also featured a recruitment booth for the NYPD.
“Last year was really a turning point where you saw more athletes in a high-profile way stepping forward,” said Jocelyn Benson, the CEO of RISE, which issued a report in 2016 on the growth of athletes and activism. “With the WNBA, Colin Kaepernick, the NBA taking a stand and the ESPYs and the Olympics as well as the loss of Muhammad Ali, there was a real moment and the country was going through a moment. It’s come together to create a unique opportunity for athletes to play a role and I hope bring the country together.”
Tanisha Wright, who was part of the protest on last year’s team, said she thinks in some ways it’s easier for WNBA players to speak out than NBA and NFL players, because the financial risk is not as large.
“It’s different because of their brand and they’re worth millions of dollars and one wrong step can cost them millions and millions of dollars,” said Wright, who was a part of the pregame panel. “At the same time, we all do have social responsibilities.”
Dyson believes it’s a responsibility that all athletes share, no matter what their color.
“Why isn’t Aaron Rodgers saying something?” he said. “He’s talking about the Congo and what happens halfway across the world, but he’s silent about what’s happening in his neighborhood? That’s not to besmirch Aaron Rodgers or say people have to be interested in all issues. But it’s safer to be interested in black people hallway across the world than it is to be concerned about them in their own neighborhood. I think athletes need to be held accountable for that.”
Some athletes, such as Long and Britt, have decided they will be. It will be interesting to see if others follow.