On Tuesday, April 20, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted by a jury on all three charges against him for the murder of George Floyd. The verdict found Chauvin guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
Following the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, the conversation concerning police brutality and racism in the United States was reignited. Last summer, protests and demands for reform swept the nation and many professional sports leagues broke their silence and invested in the Black Lives Matter movement. Adding fuel to the flames of often unheard calls for justice, the verdict inevitably elicited responses from individuals and corporations across the country, including, but not limited to, the sports world.
Athletes haven’t always been looked to in the same way in terms of politics. However, sports activism is not a new concept, just one that has taken many forms. Before social media and the existence of tools to release carefully-crafted and fully fleshed-out statements, athletes took a stand through actions, commonly using the symbolism of choosing when not to play and instead boycott. While multi-athlete efforts still make waves today — the controversy around taking a knee for the anthem illuminating this — many modern-day athletes use their personal platforms to take a stance. Why the public trusts sports figures as political compasses is a deeper issue, but the result is that activism throughout the sports world abounds.
Most notably, athletes such as Lebron James, Serena Williams, and Colin Kaepernick have been prominent figures in the face of social injustice. The list of activists in the sports community goes on, and in the face of adversity, many of them responded to the Chauvin verdict through social media.
Many expressed their frustration with the system, pointing out that while justice was served in this instance, so many other cases of police misconduct have been neglected. Tennis star Naomi Osaka tweeted, “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.”
Additionally, major sports leagues released statements in solidarity with the Floyd family. The National Football League (NFL) tweeted, “Our hearts remain with the Floyd Family, and we understand the pain, anger and frustration does not go away even when justice is delivered.”
Similarly, U.S. Soccer gave their regards to the Floyd family and added, “As the national governing body of our sport, U.S. Soccer will be a voice for social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, and we are committed to inspiring change that will be meaningful and lasting.”
National Basketball Association (NBA) sensation LeBron James posted to Twitter with a one-word response referring to the conviction: “ACCOUNTABILITY.” James had previously tweeted that day, referencing 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who was shot and killed by the police on Wednesday, April 20 in James’s home state. The tweet read, “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.” James proceeded to take down his tweet about Bryant and explained his rationale for doing so. “I’m so damn tired of seeing Black people killed by police. I took the tweet down because it’s being used to create more hate. This isn’t about one officer. It’s about the entire system and they always use our words to create more racism. I am so desperate for more ACCOUNTABILITY,” James tweeted.
In this day and age, when social media has become so widely accessible, people with a large platform have had to take on additional responsibility. Despite how qualified they may or may not be, the reality is that people look to these figures for political guidance. In these divisive times, public figures, such as Lebron James, have had to curate their messages in order to prevent the spread of hate and further division. In many cases, having a platform of such magnitude can be extremely beneficial in creating positive change. However, when members of the athletic industry miss the mark, the harm that is created can have adverse effects.
While most of the statements in the aftermath of the verdict were well intentioned and praised by the general public, a tweet from Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis was met with public scrutiny. His tweet, posted on the day of the Chauvin verdict, read, “I CAN BREATHE 4-20-21.” Davis later told ESPN that he “meant no disrespect” towards the Floyd family. Davis said that he was unaware that the phrase “I can breathe” was popular among supporters of the police in New York after the murder of Eric Garner in 2014.
Gone is the separation between the professional sports world and politics. High profile athletes and major leagues will play a crucial role by using their platforms to promote structural change. Keeping the pressure on and the conversation going to uphold these commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion will be of the utmost importance going forward.