“I coach and mentor young people who are hurting, angry, and expressing themselves in the only way they know how. They want justice, fairness, and to be treated as human beings. Some are looking to me for answers and I do not take that lightly.”
— University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway (June 8th)
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death — the 46-year-old choked under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th — two images were paired and shared all over social media. One showed that ruthless officer, kneeling on Floyd’s neck, while the other showed former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, kneeling (in 2016) to protest the mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. Both images stirred outrage by segments of the American population. (Kaepernick has not thrown a pass in the NFL since 2016.) But only one of them showed a man dying.
Sports may have felt absent — lost, even — before Floyd’s murder. As thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality, though, a new layer of emptiness became part of the shutdown: Sports didn’t seem to matter. For the first time in almost three months, legitimate American crowds were seen on live television, most people wearing masks, an acknowledgment that human proximity in the time of a pandemic brings danger, no matter how worthy the cause for gathering. There was no cheering in these open-air arenas, though, and the chants had little to do with winning a game or championship. Instead, there were chants for justice, for the end of racist-driven brutality, for African Americans to enjoy the most fundamental, basic freedom of all: to breathe
The Black Lives Matter movement — amplified in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder — somehow made the silent game nights in Memphis less of a void. Had there been a Redbirds home stand the week of June 1st, would Memphians have enjoyed their barbecue nachos while images on the stadium’s flat screens showed protesters being sprayed outside the White House, the American president clearing a path for a photo op? That colorized smoke Memphians have come to love before and during a 901 FC match looks all too similar to the chemicals that dispersed Americans merely exercising their right to assemble. Sports are distraction, sure, but they can distract only so much.
The social anguish brought statues back into the headlines, particularly those of long-dead “heroes” of the Confederacy. In Richmond, Virginia, city leaders announced plans to remove the bronze replica of the most revered of all Confederate generals, Robert E. Lee. (Tennessee legislators, alas, stubbornly refuse to closet a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the state’s capitol building.) These statues matter. Their removal matters, a more-than-symbolic statement about an era of hatred and racism that must never again be celebrated. That noose — rope-pull? — in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace's Talladega garage may have been there for months. Maybe hate wasn't behind the image. But NASCAR's reaction — that glorious march of drivers and pit crews in unison behind Wallace's car on race day — was a vivid reminder of how far we've yet to travel for racial justice.
Here in Memphis, we no longer see statues of Forrest or Jefferson Davis in downtown parks. Better yet, we’ll soon see a statue go up
, one of Larry Finch, the Memphis Tiger basketball legend who shined so brightly in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination here in 1968. The city will gain a memorial to an African-American sports figure doing what athletes do best: bringing communities together. How far might the symbolism — for brotherhood and tolerance — stretch in the year 2020 and beyond? Minus the games we’re used to cheering, Finch’s statue will be an outsized reason for applause, especially in the context of a world trembling with unrest. Larry Finch made Memphis better, and we can be better still. Let him remain a standard.
A pandemic erased sports from the Memphis landscape, but only temporarily. A concurrent movement gave sports a perspective Memphians — and an entire country — desperately needed. Perspective we must hope long outlives the pandemic.
Next week: How do spectator sports mix with socially distant culture? We're about to find out.