By MIKE HERNDON
Sports is entertainment, a welcome distraction from our everyday lives, however stressful or insane or mind-numbingly humdrum they may be. We enjoy sports as an escape.
Many of us get irritated when those whose job it is to entertain us choose to share a political or societal opinion. What was supposed to be our escape and dragged us back to reality, has forced us to think. That’s why we so often hear the phrase “stick to sports.”
But athletes and entertainers are humans just like we are and have just as much right as anybody else to share their opinions. If they have a bigger megaphone than the rest of us, that’s because we handed it to them with our fandom.
Sometimes, that megaphone can lead to change.
Within the last few weeks, stands taken by two athletes have led to changes that have been so long in coming that some thought they might never happen.
Bubba Wallace, the only black driver in NASCAR’s premier circuit, called for stock car racing’s governing body to disassociate itself with a symbol many of its fans have long held dear – the Confederate battle flag. Later Kylin Hill, a running back at Mississippi State University, threatened to sit out the season unless Mississippi changed its state flag – the last in the nation to incorporate the battle flag.
And look what happened. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag from being displayed at its events. Mississippi’s state government, moved to act not by only Hill’s stand but by threats from the SEC and NCAA to pull championship events from the state, has voted to change its flag after decades of resistance to the idea.
So much for shutting up and dribbling.
It is easy, now that these changes have been decided upon, to forget the courage it took Wallace and Hill to make these stands. They live and work in areas that have held tightly to the battle flag as a symbol of Southern heritage, ignoring the hateful connotations it carries for African Americans, whose ancestors were enslaved under that flag. Such change doesn’t come easy.
Wallace, in particular, may always have to hear allegedly grown-ass men referring to him as “Bubba Smollett” (see: Jussie) after a rope fashioned like a noose was found in his garage stall in Talladega and later found to be a garage door pull. An investigation determined the rope had been there since last fall and was not a statement directed at Wallace.
Never mind that it was a member of Wallace’s team – not Wallace – that reported it to NASCAR. And never mind that the rope was, in fact, tied like a noose, as a photo later released by NASCAR clearly shows. It should have been a relief that it wasn’t directed at Wallace; instead, some found it an occasion to direct their own hate at him.
I know it’s 2020 and everything has to be a conspiracy now, but here’s your reminder that this was not a “hoax” and neither Wallace nor his team have anything for which to apologize:
Even with the actions taken by Wallace and Hill, these changes wouldn’t likely have come without the outcry following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a now-fired and charged police officer in Minneapolis. In addition to the battle flag, many Confederate monuments are being removed and changes are under consideration for some buildings named for Confederates or segregationists.
Some complain that this amounts to “erasing” history, as though the removal of a chunk of stone or the alteration of a piece of cloth is some magic eraser that wipes away years and decades. Do we think they’ll stop teaching about the Civil War in school? Do we honestly think slavery and the lengths the South went to protect it will ever be forgotten?
There is a place for history, and that place is a museum.
Have protestors gone too far in some cases? Certainly. When demonstrations devolve into looting and destruction, they defeat their own purpose. The concept of “defunding” the police is either spectacularly misnamed or spectacularly unwise. And I’m not sure what Ulysses S. Grant ever did to draw their ire in San Francisco, aside from being a mediocre president.
But why were there ever statues erected in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest? What was it about Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee that we felt was worthy of celebration and honor?
When I was a kid growing up in Alabama, I thought the rebel flag just symbolized that you were from the South. But I learned differently and abandoned that idea. And frankly, I can’t understand why so many people seem to find that process so unfathomable, why so many so adamantly refuse to learn and grow.
America’s problem isn’t losing history. It’s that we hold on too tightly to it. It’s time to let go of some of it and start figuring out what our future should look like.
Sports is entertainment, but it’s also apparently going to be part of that process. If that’s what it takes to move us forward, I’m glad these athletes didn’t “stick to sports.”