This is going to be a rough time for racist sports fans.
Let me offer thoughts and prayers.
Sports has long offered a safe space for racists. They got to cheer for minorities — at least, the ones wearing the right uniforms — without caring about them as humans. And they got to identify with the white men who ran the teams.
Amid the WNBA and NBA strikes in protest of the latest cop-on-Black man violence, this week we have seen a relatively new development in the American sports world, one that will test the allegiance of racists.
White people in power — even old, tradition-bound, flag-wavers — are rallying to the cause.
Mike Zimmer. Ron Gardenhire. John Harbaugh. White baseball and football players. And in the biggest surprise of the protest season, even white NHL players.
American racism is rooted in the notion that old white people with money, land and power must know best, even if their money, land and power was inherited or dubiously earned. Racism is the most heinous method of maintaining that status quo.
Now some notable older white people in sports are listening to Black athletes.
When they listen, they learn.
Gardenhire, the former Twins and current Tigers manager, is from Okmulgee, Okla., not far from Tulsa, where white supremacists mounted a military-style operation in 1921 to destroy what was then called Black Wall Street, a bastion of Black financial success.
White residents, many deputized by local law enforcement, bombed and machine-gunned Black Wall Street, then went through the streets killing Black people, including women and children.
Gardenhire is the proud son of an Army veteran. He always has been a traditionalist. Gardenhire’s Tigers and the Twins decided to postpone their scheduled game Thursday to support the widespread protests against the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Here’s what Gardenhire said: “Over the course of the night, there were a lot of phone conversations and text messages between our players and trying to make sense of what’s going on. … When they start thinking about what’s going on in this country and what some of our players are going through, that was the conversation today that everybody was able to get it out instead of holding it in front of everybody. It was a really good meeting, and that made the difference.
“Honestly, it was so emotional in there, I don’t know if we could’ve played baseball.”
Zimmer, like Gardenhire, is an old white guy who is considered a traditional thinker. He, like Gardenhire, listened to his Black players and coaches, including defensive coordinator Andre Patterson.
Patterson is one of the NFL’s most respected coaches.
“Andre told me he’d been pulled over three times and had guns pulled on him,” Zimmer said. “He wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t speeding, his blinker wasn’t wrong, he wasn’t changing lanes. And they let him go each time. That’s not right.
“I haven’t been able to walk in Andre’s shoes and some of the players’. We had a player tell a story similar to what I’m talking about with Andre.”
Decades ago, we could have described racism as a form of ignorance. Not in the information age. Now racism is willful ignorance.
Gardenhire and Zimmer could have ducked the issue. Instead, they listened to Black voices. For the sports world to affect real-world change, billionaire sports owners and companies will have to follow their lead.
That’s why the Baltimore Ravens are so important right now. They are a heralded franchise in America’s most popular sports league. The league that blackballed Colin Kaepernick, and that has appeared afraid of angering right-wing politicians or white fans.
The Ravens and their white owner and head coach not only canceled practice to discuss racism, they then issued a statement demanding seven actions to combat systemic racism.
If racism is willful ignorance, anti-racism is rooted in empathy.
The killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake are tests of white empathy. Thankfully, for once, some white sports leaders appear willing to take the test.