Athletes and Activism: A lot more work to do

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Brian Reiff

Since 1976, when Black History Month was officially recognized by the U.S. government, we have used February to remember those black Americans who have made important contributions to the country’s history.

This tradition of honoring African-American contributions actually originated 50 years earlier, when Carter G. Woodson introduced Negro History Week to recognize the achievements of black Americans that had been overlooked in a white-centric culture.

But more recently, the month that’s supposed to be celebratory in nature has also featured tense discussions about racial relations. San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich was asked what Black History Month meant to him, and he had some interesting things to say.

“Well, it’s a remembrance, and a bit of a celebration in some ways,” Popovich said in an interview with ESPN. “It sounds odd because we’re not there yet, but it’s always important to remember what has passed and what is being experienced now by the black population. It’s a celebration of some of the good things that have happened, and a reminder that there’s a lot more work to do.”

When unarmed black Americans are five times more likely than white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer, there’s a lot more work to do.

When the typical white household’s wealth is more than 15 times greater than that of the typical black household, there’s a lot more work to do.

When a candidate endorsed by a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan is able to become the president of our country, there’s a lot more work to do.

There are countless more examples of the racism the black population still faces in this country today, even if some are more overt or systemic than others. It’s a difficult fact to face for some people, but it’s something that must be addressed until the problem is fixed.

“It always intrigues me when people come out with, ‘I’m tired of talking about that or do we have to talk about race again?’” Popovich said. “And the answer is you’re damned right we do.”

In the last couple of weeks, several African-American players from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have publicly announced they will not be attending the White House with the rest of their teammates. Members of championship-winning teams are traditionally invited to visit the president at some point after their victory, but a growing number of players have announced they would not accept the offer.

Tight end Martellus Bennett was the first to publicize his decision, doing so shortly after the end of the game. Defensive back Devin McCourty and running back LeGarrette Blount later joined him, claiming they wouldn’t feel welcome or accepted in the White House.

All in all, six players from the team have announced they would not be in attendance when the team visits Washington. For a team whose owner, head coach and quarterback all have positive relationships with the new president, the amount of backlash is particularly surprising.

Then again, maybe it’s not.

The president received just 8 percent of black votes according to exit polls, which is in line with the numbers past Republican candidates have received but still reflects the lack of support he has received from a sizable portion of the U.S. population.

It’s hard to imagine that support from the black population has gone up since Trump took office, partially because his approval rating is down overall but also because of the statement his administration made by nominating Jeff Sessions, who has a long history of racism, for Attorney General.

If our country wants to end its racism problem, it all starts with acknowledgment. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only 56 percent of white Americans believed racism against blacks is widespread in the U.S., versus 82 percent of black Americans.

Clearly, there is a significant divide in our national mindset. I’m not here to say who’s correct (hint: it’s the ones who actually experience the racism), but either way a majority of Americans believe racism is prevalent against blacks in this country.

That’s an encouraging sign for the future, and the fact that high-profile athletes are boycotting the White House visit should only bring more attention to this issue.

Acknowledgment, though, is only the tip of the iceberg. As Popovich said, there’s still a lot more work to do.

But we can do it — we can do the work. And after it’s done, we can restore February back to its original purpose: celebrating the black citizens who made America great.

Brian Reiff, ’17, is the deputy sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at bsr217@lehigh.edu.

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