Enough is Enough
Trymaine Lee: (CHIMES) 2020 was a year. COVID-19, the election, the fight for justice and equality. We spent most of it locked down which amplified everything. (MUSIC) So we hurt a lot. Sometimes we laughed. But most of the year just felt likeThe Twilight Zone.
2020 showed us just how thin the line between America at its best and worst truly is. It's a messy intersection, a wild Venn diagram of race, politics, hope, money, violence and the desire to be free. And there were few spaces in American life in 2020 where those circles overlapped more than in professional sports.
Archival Recording: We are dedicating this season to Breonna Taylor.
Archival Recording: Same energy that we had on the floor is the same energy that we have towards having justice for Breonna Taylor.
Archival Recording: Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action. So our focus today cannot be on basketball.
Lee: In the middle of a global pandemic that upended the sports' world during the most outwardly racist presidency in a generation, 2020 was a year in which the Black athlete stood on the line and demanded (MUSIC) respect not just for themselves but for Black people.
Jemele Hill: I think it was just a collective, "Enough," that happened to Black athletes where they decided, "This is the fight that's worth risking it all for."
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, we go into the protest and power of the Black athlete in 2020 with journalist Jemele Hill who has emerged as an important voice in understanding the confluence of sports, politics and culture. Jemele Hill is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.
And before this gig, she spent more than a decade covering sports for ESPN. So she knows there's a long history of athletes being told to stick to sports: Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos, and Tommy Smith. They heard this decades ago. The latest version sounds something like, "Shut up and dribble."
Archival Recording: LeBron and Kevin, you're great players but no one voted for you.
Lee: I asked Jemele whether that message might be starting to change.
Hill: First of all, shout out to Laura Ingraham because she was the one who said it.
Laura Ingraham: Millions elected Trump to be their coach. So keep the political commentary to yourself. Or as someone once said, "Shut up and dribble."
Hill: And thus LeBron titled his documentary after it. Thus, I got another paycheck from it because I narrated the documentary. So thank you. (LAUGH) Appreciate that.
Lee: There you go.
Hill: Yeah, I mean, Black athletes have historically always been told to, "Shut up and dribble," in one way or another. And they've often been looked and positioned by society as being the ones who made it. And they've been told that they need to be grateful for what they have because they have been allowed, put that in air quotes, to ascend to a much different position than most Black people get to ascend to.
Lee: Jemele told me that mentality was pervasive in the sports' world back in the 1980s. And many athletes (MUSIC) just went along with it.
Hill: There was this idea that was starting to blossom of Black men, in particular, being global brand ambassadors. Jordan took it to another level.
Hill: By, you know, through Gatorade and Nike and became the most popular athlete in the world.
Hill: And his entire mentality was stay apolitical, make this money, create generational wealth. So there was a sense of capitalism can save us. That attitude persisted, I think, through a huge chunk of the '90s, bled into the 2000s. And then, you know, finally what we saw was that little by little, and I think honestly Trayvon Martin was the moment, where you had LeBron James in the Miami Heat and many other athletes decided that they had been quiet for (MUSIC) for too long.
Archival Recording: LeBron James tweeted a photo of himself and his teammates wearing team logoed hoodies in honor of Trayvon Martin, 17-year-old boy who was shot and killed last month by a neighborhood watch guard in Sanford, Florida.
Hill: And so that sparked something. And it continued. And certainly, with Black women in terms of athletics, you have seen them be much more forceful. The problem is because they don't get the eyeballs and attention that their displays of activism were often drowned out or just completely ignored. But this Trayvon Martin moment was different. From that, you have the Minnesota Lynx taking a stand regarding Philando Castile. (MUSIC)
Archival Recording: The Minnesota Lynx are best known for winning. But they're now drumming up some controversy. Saturday night they made a statement speaking out against racial profiling by wearing t-shirts for pre-game warm-ups. The shirts said a few things like, "Change starts with us." They also had the names of the most recent Black men killed by police, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile written on them.
Lee: This was back in the summer of 2016. Lynx captain, Rebekkah Brunson, explained why the WNBA team was wearing the shirts in a pre-game press conference.
Rebekkah Brunson: In the wake of the tragedies that have continued to plague our society, we have decided it is important to take a stand and raise our voices. Racial profiling is a problem. Senseless violence is a problem. The divide is way too big between our communities and those who have vowed to protect and serve us.
Hill: Which then leads to Colin Kaepernick and his protest in 2016.
Archival Recording: Back now with the controversy swirling around a big NFL star who took a stand by refusing to stand for the national anthem. He was protesting racial injustice in America, he says. But critics have pounced.
Colin Kaepernick: There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren't being held accountable for. And that's something that needs to change.
Archival Recording: Will you continue to sit?
Colin Kaepernick: Yes. I'll continue to sit. I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. There's people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.
Hill: So if we're looking at the start point and then that goes all the way up into now, this is five to eight years in the process of building to where now athletes feel far more responsible when it comes to their community involvement, when it comes to activism. Like, now you're almost looked at weirdly if you aren't discussing political and social issues.
Lee: Was there a moment in 2020 when the protests and reckoning spilled from the street corners into pop culture, into sports, spread across America? Was there a moment you said, "You know what, this is much bigger than we've seen before. This is real," that something in this moment was different?
Hill: We started the year with the death of Kobe Bryant.
Archival Recording: We're coming on the air with breaking news. Very sad news to tell the sports' world. The L.A. Times is reporting that retired Los Angeles Lakers' basketball star, Kobe Bryant, has been killed in a helicopter crash. It happened this morning.
Hill: That was early in this year. Right? And that seems like ten years ago. And we've been through tragedy after tragedy since. So there was already a sense of loss. Here you lost somebody who was considered to be a hero in the Black community, great basketball player. Certainly has worked with the WNBA. And the relationship with his daughter, like, there's a lot there that the community was grieving. And I especially felt that because I live in Los Angeles. Plenty of famous people have died in Los Angeles. But this was different.
Archival Recording: There will never be nobody else like Kobe.
Archival Recording: It's just like I feel like I lost someone in my family.
Archival Recording: There's probably nobody that has changed my life as much as Kobe Bryant. And, you know, I was hoping to see him, you know, see him do so many great things.
Hill: I mean, this city's heart was broken completely. So we started with that. And then we have Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, just out the gate. And then it's George Floyd. What happened in 2020 is that there was just no room to aren't. And there was no way to escape it.
It's unfortunate. And I'm not saying Black athletes bought into this but Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, they felt like arguments. In fact, they were arguments. Right? Where we are collectively as Black people saying, "No this is an issue."
But there was always that, "Oh but he shouldn't've been selling cigarettes. Or oh but this." It was always some other side that was turning these obvious displays of state-sanctioned violence into debates. There was no debate with George Floyd.
There was no debate with Ahmaud Arbery. This was a lynching that happened in broad daylight. And so finally I think athletes felt much more empowered to finally say, "Enough is enough. I have to join this fight now." Something I've definitely thoughtabout is what would have happened if we weren't in the pandemic.
Would they have still felt this same need and compulsion to speak up because the results and the games tend to desensitize us and distract us. And so I wonder if not for a complete shutdown, would they have felt maybe differently? I'm glad we'll never know the answer to that.
But I think it was just a collective, "Enough," that happened to Black athletes where they decided, "This is the fight that's worth risking it all for." You know, one of the things why they wanted to be in the bubble was so that they could continue to keep the message of voter suppression and Breonna Taylor and all these issues, they wanted to keep them alive and before the public every night.
Marcus Smart: (UNINTEL) my answer is going to be justice for Breonna Taylor. That'sgonna be my answer for everything. So just lettin' you guys know that now.
Lee: This is the NBA's Marcus Smart of the Celtics at a post-game press conference in late July.
Archival Recording: Hey, Marcus, so if I ask you about team defense, that's going to be your answer?
Smart: Justice for Breonna Taylor.
Hill: And then to have Jacob Blake happen.
Archival Recording: White police officer in Wisconsin shot a Black man in the back seven times at point black range. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha over the weekend has reignited anti-police brutality protests all across the country. News Four sports' reporter, John Chandler, live in the news room with some new reaction from players, John.
John Chandler: And Natalie, NBA players just wrapped up a long meeting tonight at the Orlando bubble discussing boycotting more games, maybe even the whole season. They are aware they have a platform and a powerful message to deliver. Now theywanna find a way to effect change.
Hill: And I think a lot of athletes kind of had reached their breaking point. I think a big reason why that work stoppage happened was because they wondered what am I doing this for? If this is still the result, despite everything we're doing every night, the money we're generating, how we're trying to individually break systems. And so that made it even more of a huge moment where they all felt collectively, "It's time to respond and respond in a big way."
Lee: We've heard LeBron James say that, you know, they were willing to sit out the entire season that Blake was killed. But then come the call from President Barack Obama, they take consult from the president. Right?
Lebron James: I'm lucky enough to have a friend, you know, the 44th president, that gave us those words of leadership and those words of saying, "Okay, this can be plan of action. You know, this can be something that you guys can ask for. And if we can get that, then we can continue to push the needle. And you guys can also continue the season as well."
Lee: And he urges them to get back out there. What do you make of that?
Hill: I'm torn about it. I mean, I was torn about it when they decided to go back. I understood, I mean, I didn't think that they went back just for preservation of money. I didn't think they went back for that. I think they went back because they wanted to continue to force the public to deal with these issues.
But then there was another part of me looking at all they've been through, all we, as a people, have been through, looking at how the families directly involved, what they've been through. America didn't deserve them. You don't deserve to be entertained by them. You can't even respect them as humans.
Why do you deserve to be entertained by them? Why do you deserve to see their talent and to see their brilliance? You don't. And I understand why former President Obama convinced them to go back. And this is maybe, you know, why he excelled as a politician is he believes in the system.
So of course it occurs to him to go back because he feels like change is possible. And, you know, people like me who are 9,000 years old, while we believe in change, we're now at the point where we're just, like, middle finger to the air. Okay? (LAUGH) All right?
And so I got it. But nevertheless, there's always gonna be a part of me that wishes that they would just burn the whole system down. And one easy way to do that is when you start messing with people's money as that would have definitely (MUSIC) done.
Lee: We have to take a quick break. When we come back, Jemele Hill talks about the business side of activism in sports and whether the NBA and the NFL will continue to support players who take a stand.
This is into America. I'm Trymaine Lee. And we're back with journalist, Jemele Hill. It's one thing to talk about the players standing up. But when you see the industry, the league, the franchises, the businessman, the corporations getting involved in this, do you buy it?
Hill: So this is gonna sound like a blunt, brutally blunt answer, no, I don't buy it. But I don't know if it matters because, listen, the NBA understands very much what kinda social capital they have. And part of what makes the NBA such a great league is that they're able to tap into culture. And there's a authenticity that their fans expect from the players in the league. Not to mention, the most important athlete in their league is LeBron James who's been very vocal about where he stands on these issues.
James: You know, I was thinking about the other day when we played the Raptors. We kneeled for two national anthems. I think it was a little bit over four minutes. And we actually as a unit, as a team, had to switch our knees over from one knee to the other knee because they started get to sore, started to, like, kinda start hurting a little bit. And you think about eight minutes and 46 seconds, you know, of a officer having his knee on someone's throat for that long. Video or no video, it doesn't matter, no one deserved to lose their life when it coulda been prevented.
Hill: You want to keep the best player in the league happy. So it doesn't matterwhether or not this was genuine or not. It's good business. But let's not forget, this is the same league that instituted a dress code because they were worried about how white fans were perceiving some of their players.
So they're not above catering to, you know, certain white comfort as well. They are not. It's just that they have a player that has forced them to reckon with some things from a social justice standpoint. And they would be stupid not to follow suit.
And the same would be said for a lot of the other corporate brands. The NFL finally realizing, "Oh we shoulda listened to Colin Kaepernick." Yeah, it's fake. Of courseit is because they see the public opinion shifting. Everything that Colin Kaepernick was talking about in 2016 and all the reasons he laid out for why he was protesting still apply to 2020.
There was nothing that changed. The only thing that changed was the temperature. And now they feel more comfortable. And now they realize they really look outta touch, if they don't jump on board, there's a Black consumer that they also have to think about and care about which is really how they shoulda been thinking all along.
Lee: You know, speaking of the NFL, it was almost comical to see Roger Goodell come out there after everything that we saw, after everything that Kaepernick went through, after everything, here you are, "Black lives matter."
Roger Goodell: We at the National Football League condemn racism and the systemic oppression of Black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.
Hill: Their hypocrisy is easily the worst. It's Roger Goodell coming out and finally saying Black lives matter, of him saying they should've listened to Colin Kaepernick. But it's also this very weird thing where they're trying to sell this idea that they're committed to social justice.
But yet, you're still blackballing Colin Kaepernick. And until that's made right, and it never will, then you can't take them seriously in this issue at all. And, you know, granted, they've said that they would welcome some expression of demonstration by their players. But as long as you continue to keep Colin Kaepernick outta the league, I don't care really what they do. So you can't really backtrack now. That toothpaste is outta the tube.
Lee: You know, I've also wondered what would happen if we have fans in the stands. Like, you could do this without having people heckling the GM, heckling the coach. Do you think that changes the dynamics?
Hill: Of course it does. My expectation is if this public shift changes, the NFL's mentality and their approach will change with it. And I think the players probably know that more so now than ever before. But, you know, you just watch their behavior when the moment is not so convenient. And I think they'll probably go back to what we've known them to be which is kinda cowardly in this regard.
Lee: And do the players go along with that? Do they give up any power that they exerted or that they, you know, stood up and had the full agency as grown-ass men and grown-up professionals, do they give that back up when it's not so convenient for the franchises?
Hill: It's hard to gauge exactly how much power the NFL players had in this movement because they certainly had the power of public opinion behind them. And so that gave them much more leeway to speak freely and to talk about injustice. But they're not the NBA.
The NBA has a totally different financial structure that is player-friendly. And, I mean, we just saw Anthony Davis get $190 million on a max deal, Paul George, $226 million. They don't make that kinda money in the NFL. The average career lasts three years.
It's very much a business that is pro-owner and it's about replacing people. That's the whole genesis of it. Like, there's only one LeBron James. You're not gonna find that dude again. Right? Or it may be another generation before you do.
So the players, the worth, is much more valuable. And so the players just have more power. In the NFL, that's not the case. You see undrafted or late-round draft picks become stars all the time. So they feel like everybody's replaceable. And they treat the players that way.
And so because there's this disposable mentality in the NFL, the players aren't able to have as big of a voice and as loud of a voice as you see professional players have in other leagues because the owners have so much control over everything. And the fans, unfortunately, the fans are pro-owner. They're not with the labor. They feel a kinship with owners.
Lee: Because of a baked-in anti-Blackness? Or because just the class differentiation?
Hill: Baked-in anti-Blackness and because there is this mentality of team first above individual players. I mean, I know it may seem silly to some people. But also, it's kinda the mentality behind fantasy football. Like, the fantasy industry's $1 billion business.
The whole nature of playing fantasy football is transnational. You own this player. This is your player. Right? And that ownership mentality bleeds down to the fans who feel superior to NFL players, in many ways. Like, "Oh you're just my entertainment."
And so they always side with the owner because they're always about what's best for the team and what's best for the city they may come from. And there's a general jealousy and anti-Blackness that people don't like to admit that they have. This breeds a much different battleground for NFL players than it does for NBA players.
Lee: You know, you've been so outspoken for so long and have gotten yourself, you know, the, "Shut up and dribble," treatment. Right? Like, "Jemele, stop. Stick to sports. You know, just shut up and entertain us." Right? But now a lot of folks have come around.
And let's keep it real, a lotta white people have come around. Especially when you were talking about the president's racism. Right? His obvious racism. And you were saying this and it was a shock to a lotta people. I think history will remember you kindly at this point, I think. How does that feel? Does it feel like vindication? Are you surprised? Are you shocked? Or all along were you saying, "Well, yeah, obviously."
Hill: Vindication is not what I feel. I feel horror because of the things that we, as a nation, have been through the last four years. I wish I was wrong. There's no t-shirt that I get at the end of this. I don't get, you know, some balloons and a pie because I was right that the president is a racist and a white supremacist.
If anything, I'm a citizen of this country too. I don't wanna be governed by a racist president. You know, I wish that prediction woulda been, like, you know, some of my football picks that I've made which is horribly wrong. Right? (LAUGHTER) But that wasn't what happened. And so more or less, I'm disappointed that it took this long for some people to understand the gravity of what was happening in this country. I'm disappointed that 70 million people still decided that they wanted more.
Lee: Seventy million people.
Hill: It has exposed an ugliness that has always been there in America. But it became, I guess, more real to some degree. Even to me. My mother grew up during the Civil Rights era. She's been through separate water fountains and having to deal with, you know, segregation and as did my grandmother before her. They had to deal with these things.
And hearing them talk about it, it seems so surreal. But now I got a taste of what they kind of went through, on some level. It wasn't the same, so obviously, we've progressed in terms of civil rights. But to actually have this kind of open racism be encouraged and tolerated and to know that there are millions of people who look at people like me in a certain way, who look at me as less than human, who don't believe that not just me but millions of other Black people and brown people don't deserve dignity, nor respect.
And so that's why this idea of unity is just a terrible one because it's hard to unify people. I mean, I get it. I get it theoretically. Yes, I would love if this were a more cohesive and unified nation. But there's millions of people who've exposed themselves as either being racist or being okay with racism.
And I don't know where that leaves us in the conversation. Like, there's no middle ground to that. And so, you know, getting back to your question, if anything, it, you know, broke my heart in a way that I don't think it's ever going to heal. Because, you know, just the whole mask came off in this country from 2016 to 2020. And you can't unsee what you've seen. (MUSIC)
Lee: Jemele Hill, thank you so much for joining us. We really, really truly appreciate it. Thank you.
Hill: Hey, thank you for making me a part of this. Always good to look back on an ugly year.
Lee: (LAUGHTER) It's the highlight of the year, matter of fact.
Hill: Right, exactly.
Lee: That was journalist, Jemele Hill. She's a contributing writer for The Atlanticand host of the podcast, Jemele Hill is Unbothered and co-host of the new show, Cari and Jemele Won't Stick to Sports on Vice. And one final note, on this last day of 2020, a tough year for so many of us.
The Into America team wants to say a special thank you to you, our listeners. We launched at the end of February, right before so many of our lives were upended. But we never stopped making this podcast. We hope it's told you something along the way. Maybe it made you laugh or even made you cry. And above all, thank you for listening. And we hope to have you join us in 2021.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Clare Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman and I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.