After a year of outrage and a push for change, the sports world embraces the Derek Chauvin verdict
Michele Roberts, the National Basketball Players Association’s executive director, began having discussions last week about what union members would do if Chauvin was acquitted.
“I remember Rodney King,” Roberts said in a telephone interview Tuesday night, “and I’ve been so afraid it was going to be a repetition of that. I feel like I can exhale and maybe get some sleep — for a day.”
A video and a global push for change led to a moment in which sports and politics converged in an undeniable way. The shift seemed unavoidable because it occurred in the early stages of a pandemic, during a pause in sports that eliminated distractions.
It forced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to admit that the league had mishandled the situation with Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who knelt in protest of police brutality during the national anthem in 2016 and hasn’t taken a snap in the league since that season ended. It led to the NBA placing “Black Lives Matter” on its courts in the Disney World bubble that it created to finish its season. It forced teams to take a stand, and say and do something, or risk being pilloried by its own players and fans for being silent.
Former NBA player and current podcast host Stephen Jackson was a good friend of Floyd and became active in protests around the country. The NBA and WNBA gave their players opportunities to speak out on an issue that was important to them, granted them permission to take a knee during the national anthem and let them wear uniforms with social justice messages on the back.
The New York Knicks, who refrained from making any statement in the days after Floyd’s death, had an immediate response to the verdict. The Philadelphia 76ers said in a statement, “We know that full justice will only be achieved with systemic change.”
“Justice was done,” New Orleans Pelicans Coach Stan Van Gundy said before his team faced the Brooklyn Nets. “But it’s hard to celebrate. It’s hard to celebrate because it doesn’t bring back George Floyd. We had somebody needlessly killed.”
“Justice and Accountability! Things I never thought I would see,” Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns said on Twitter. “There’s much more work to do, but this is an amazing start working toward the reform this country NEEDS!”
Tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King said on Twitter: “The time to collectively examine the treatment of Black people, in particular Black boys/men, by some law enforcement is long overdue. The path to healing must begin.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka added: “I was going to make a celebratory tweet but then I was hit with sadness because we are celebrating something that is clear as day. The fact that so many injustices occurred to make us hold our breath toward this outcome is really telling.”
For 9 minutes 29 seconds, Chauvin placed his knee on a prostrate man, ignoring Floyd’s pleas and the demands of others to release him, and the entire incident was caught on video. But unlike others in the seemingly endless stream of shooting videos, there was no immediacy, no debatable quick reaction. It was deliberate, knowing. And it made the response much more passionate for justice to be served, and for some to seek a better understanding of systemic racism and oppression, Roberts said.
“Sadly, it was not the case that it was shocking and unusual news that a Black man was killed by the police. It was the manner. It was the fact that this man, this police officer would do it, A) publicly, B) knowing he was being filmed, because he saw the camera, C) for such a long period of time,” Roberts said. “It was too much.”
The NBA shut down for two days during the postseason after Kenosha, Wis., police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Roberts said it was a critical moment for many of the players to recognize the commitment needed to create structural change that could help end police brutality.
“The outrage that our players expressed reminded me of how young they were and how young many of us are. We thought getting out in the streets in May, after George Floyd and bringing Breonna [Taylor’s] name into it, we actually thought that police officers would say, ‘Maybe we should stop shooting people?’ And it happened again,” Roberts said. “It’s a sad maturity that our players arrived at and that our country arrived at. That sense that we know it’s not enough to hit the streets. It’s not enough to be happy that there is accountability for one police officer. We’ve come to the point that there is still much work to do.
“This is not over. It’s at least one day of peace — unless they kill somebody tonight, right?”