Black people are dying. White athletes need to speak out.

Terrence Floyd, centre, attends a vigil at the spot where his brother, George Floyd, was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minn.(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

It’s been a particularly difficult month to be black in North America, and NHLer Evander Kane doesn’t want the only people discussing that to be people who look like him. He wants white people to speak up, too — a sentiment I understand.

There’s an exhaustion that sets in when you’re constantly called upon to comment on crimes against your own — and the crimes have been heinous and plentiful of late.

On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down while out for a jog. His killers were only just charged last week, roughly three months after his death.

On March 13, Breonna Taylor was killed while she was sleeping in her own home by Louisville police during a drug raid that turned up no drugs.

On May 25, a white woman named Amy Cooper threatened black birdwatcher Christian Cooper (no relation) in New York’s Central Park, when he had the audacity to remind her of the park’s rule stating that her dog must be leashed. She told him, “I’m going to call the cops and say an African-American man is threatening my life.” She eventually did call the police to tell them her fabricated story, a call he caught on tape.

Later that same day, in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd died in police custody, screaming for his mother and pleading that he couldn’t breathe. Officer Derek Chauvin was seen on cellphone video footage kneeling on the prone and handcuffed Floyd’s neck for a staggering eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s longer than it will take you to read this story. Floyd was suspected of using a counterfeit $20 bill.

Add to that the arrest of black CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, who was taken into custody by state troopers on the air on Friday while covering the protests over Floyd’s killing, as his own mother and grandmother watched live. It’s worth pausing to note that Jimenez was arrested before Chauvin was.

And on Sunday, during protests in Atlanta, two college students were Tasered and forcibly removed from their car on live TV. Police later said they thought the couple was armed, which they weren’t.

All of these incidents (and many more) are connected by an utter disregard for the humanity of black people. In response, concerned citizens in cities across North America have taken to the streets in protest, and social media has been flooded with shows of support as well as pain, sorrow and anger at systemic racism and the continued loss of black life. The public outcry has been remarkable.

But for those of us in the sports world, another aspect of the response has been noteworthy as well: the level of silence from white sports figures with the fame and influence to really make a difference – something Kane said bluntly on ESPN’s First Take on Friday.

“We need so many more athletes that don’t look like me speaking out about this, having the same amount of outrage that I have inside, and using that to voice their opinions, voice their frustration — because that’s the only way it’s going to change,” Kane said. “We’ve been outraged for hundreds of years and nothing’s changed. It’s time for guys like Tom Brady and Sidney Crosby, those type of figures, to speak up about what is right and, clearly in this case, what is unbelievably wrong. Because that is the only way we’re going to actually create that unified anger to create that necessary change.”

Kane later joined Stephen Brunt, Richard Deitsch and Jeff Blair on Sportsnet 590 The FAN’s Writers Bloc, adding: “When you have ethnicities other than the ones that are being affected step up and say something, that causes a real dialogue. It can cause real change. And it can cause people to really open up their eyes and come together, and I think that’s the biggest thing. And we don’t have nearly enough of that, clearly.”

Kane wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Masai Ujiri, who had his own championship-winning moment tainted by an aggressive, racially profiling police officer, weighed in on the discussion as well. “Your voice matters, especially when you are a leader or influential figure, and especially if you are white,” the first African born GM and president in major North American sports wrote in a Globe and Mail editorial. “Leaders have to be bold enough to state the obvious and call out racism.”

Of course, some white sports figures didn’t need the prompt — Steve Kerr, Megan Rapinoe and Chris Long, among others, all being examples.

But that group just isn’t big enough. What is needed are consistent voices of support.

Part of the privilege of being white is deciding when to care about issues that don’t directly threaten your way of life. Black people aren’t allowed the same choice. We don’t move on because we can’t. And we pay a price, despite that lack of control. The long-term toll of worrying about your safety and how you are perceived because of your race plays a role in chronic stressors that create measurable disparities between the health of black people and white people.

And it’s not as if white athletes don’t speak out because they truly feel they should stick to sports.

How many white athletes have posted messages thanking essential workers and first responders during the COVID-19 pandemic? How many white athletes shared condolences after April’s shooting rampage in Nova Scotia?

These are both worthy causes — that’s not the point — but it seems as if those same athletes’ voices suddenly go silent when the issue principally affects minorities. That is a huge missed opportunity for the cause of racial justice. Just imagine how powerful it would be if white athletes used their power and platforms even at the risk of making other white people uncomfortable.

Kane mentioned Crosby and Brady not so much as individuals but as placeholders for the entire class of established white athletes. He could have said Connor McDavid or Mike Trout and the point would have been the same. What does it say that the vast majority of high-profile white athletes aren’t willing to use a couple cents’ worth of data and 280 characters to send out anything more than the obligatory thoughts-and-prayers tweet? The silence is all the more deafening as cities burn and people without the protection of fame and fortune are shot, tear-gassed and run over by police while standing up for this cause.

Of the 38 white athletes on Forbes’s list of the 100 highest-paid athletes on earth, only six (Gordon Hayward, Derek Carr, Ben Roethlisberger, Kevin Love, Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins) spoke publicly about racial injustice in the month before Chauvin was arrested.

The top five golfers in the world are about to play in the first PGA tournament since the COVID-19 lockdown began, the Charles Schwab Invitational — commonly known as The Colonial. Imagine if one of them played 18 holes wearing an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt. Imagine if they collectively held a press conference to start the tournament, discussing these issues. Imagine if they donated their earnings to a cause that could help.

Is any of that crazy to suggest? Would any of it even be difficult to execute? And isn’t that how real change happens — when power and privilege is used to uplift those who don’t have any?

Imagine if an NHL player or GM said, “We are boycotting Minnesota as a hub city unless we see judicial action.” Too radical? What about the opposite? What if they said, “We demand Minnesota be a hub city so we can help kickstart the reconciliation and provide an economic boost to a town that is reeling”? It doesn’t matter how that power is applied, only that it’s used to help.

Canadians may want to frame this whole thing as an American issue, but it’s not as if we are without racial injustices of our own.

We had internment camps and residential schools in Canada. Viola Desmond was arrested for not sitting in the back of a theater in Canada. In 2017, six people were killed and 19 injured in a shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. And our prime minister has engaged in multiple, documented incidents of wearing blackface.

In Toronto, black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by the police than their white counterparts. Carding has been and still is used as a police tactic in parts of this country.

D’Andre Campbell, Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby and Dafonte Miller are all black victims of racial violence that was perpetrated in Canada. If you don’t already know their names, that’s part of the point.

And yet, there is a huge void on these issues where white athletes’ voices should be. Of the top five most-mentioned white Canadian athletes on Twitter, none have released a public statement or mentioned their own thoughts.

As of Saturday, a day after Kane’s comments, the lone notable exception in the Canadian hockey world was Logan Couture, another member of the Sharks.

Though Couture may not have known it when he sat down to write, this type of statement carries incredible weight and influence. And it’s been somewhat encouraging to see a smattering of other white NHLers lend their voices to the cause in the time since his tweet — including Blake Wheeler, Anze Kopitar and Auston Matthews.

But those voices are still too few and far between, and Canadian players remain particularly quiet, though a few beyond Couture have issued statements.

Akim Aliu recently wrote about his racist treatment within the sport. His article was met with crickets from most of the famous white names in the game, aside from Ryan Miller — an American.

Almost every documented racial issue Aliu endured took place in Canada, and was perpetrated by a Canadian. Where are the Canadian players? Where are their voices?

If I’m holding athletes to a high standard, it’s because I’ve seen the incredible and immediate power of their words and support.

The hockey community has demonstrated its capacity to rally for those who are hurting — look no further than the aftermath of the tragic Humboldt Broncos bus crash. The sport’s stars spoke up and the GoFundMe campaign in support of the victims raised $4 million dollars in 48 hours and ended with over $15 million — the second-highest-grossing GoFundMe campaign of all time.

That is an amazing power for good. Imagine if it was also applied to, say, the cause of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Institutions have power.

Leagues have power.

Teams have power.

It was the NBA’s decision to suspend play that reinforced the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic for many. The NFL took the Super Bowl away from Arizona in 1991 because they wouldn’t recognize MLK Day as a holiday. The NBA refused to award Charlotte the 2017 All-Star Game until the discriminatory HB2 bathroom bill was repealed.

There’s no quick fix to any of these issues, but the long-term one must include those with power and privilege using it for good. If they aren’t using their platforms to fight racism, then by default, they’re using their power to normalize it.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, friends and colleagues reached out to see how I was feeling.

I’ve told them what I’ll say here: I’m exhausted, and not only because of what happened to George Floyd.

I’ve been conditioned my whole life to understand that I won’t be treated equally. I learned it from the first time my father gave me “the talk” about keeping my hands at 10-and-2 when pulled over for “driving while black.” It’s a conversation I’ve rehearsed in my head for when the time comes to give it to my young son, robbing him of his innocence to hopefully prevent him from becoming the next hashtag.

I’m exhausted because people who look like me are often the only ones that care enough to do or say something, even though we have the least amount of power to create change.

I’m exhausted because racism isn’t even a minority problem; it’s the oppressor’s problem. We just bear the awful consequences.

I’m exhausted because, as Tyrone Edwards describes, systemic racism wears you down mentally. As Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote, it’s our own permanent pandemic.

How am I feeling? I wish Canadians cared about black issues as much as they care about black art, black music, black sports.

If your deepest relationship to a black person is on your playlist or fantasy team, you’re part of the problem, because you are benefitting from black success while not acknowledging that many black people are living a nightmare. And some are no longer living at all.

Imagine if everyone who flooded the streets when the Raptors won a championship last summer did so again, to protest the number of black lives lost due to gun violence.

Imagine if everyone who took pride in the slogan “We The North” also took pride in finding a solution for our First Nations communities who don’t have clean, running water or access to affordable, healthy food.

Think about the message it sends a journalist like myself or an athlete like Evander Kane or an executive like Masai Ujiri or an artist like Drake that you care about our work, but can’t be bothered enough to care about our humanity.

Which is why, like Kane, I’m going to challenge my own industry.

If you work in sports media and make a living off of the talent and ingenuity of black athletes, the least you can do is use your journalistic skills and privilege to show that black lives have equal value to your own. The least you can do is allot more than 28 or 29 days in February to humanizing black people.

So, salute to Evander Kane for saying what nobody else in his sport was willing to say.

He’s tired, I’m tired – and it would be nice to rest on the support of others for once.


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