Athletes in Arms: Recovery in a world of pain

A red graphic used as stock for the sports section.

When I decided to join the Daily Trojan team, I thought that I would be able to use my status as a student-athlete at USC to write about how my peers in athletics have navigated the recent surge in the fight against racial injustice. 

For my debut in this sports column, however, I felt the need to talk about a recent tragedy that hit too close to home. 

I am originally from Milwaukee, Wis. I grew up going to Bucks, Brewers and Packers games. The Bucks currently are on the road to advancing in the NBA Playoffs with reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, bringing loads of excitement to the city. 

At this current moment in time, I wish the Bucks were the biggest story coming out of Wisconsin. Instead, just two days ago, Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, was shot seven times in the back by police — a 45-minute drive from where I grew up. 

As the NBA wraps up the first round of playoffs, players would normally be dialed into finishing their respective series and looking forward to the next matchup. In light of current events, many star players, including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, shifted their attention to what happened in Wisconsin. 

“Quite frankly it’s just fucked up in our community,” James said in a press conference after Monday’s Game 4 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. “And I said it, I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America. Black men, Black women, Black kids — we are terrified.”

With a strong 3-1 series lead over Portland, James would normally be concerned with his next opponent, the winner of the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder matchup, who are both playing at the top of their games at the moment. 

Instead of seeing his next opponent in the playoffs as the biggest threat to be concerned about, a veteran star of the league sees police in the United States as the biggest threat. Even a man standing at 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year still shares a common fear of police that many in the Black community face today. 

Going into the NBA bubble, racial injustice was already at the center of attention for the league as players put statements on the back of their jerseys, knelt for the national anthem in unity and most overtly, played on a court with “Black Lives Matter” written in large, bolded letters. 

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black Americans, backlash arose from several players in the league to whether they should be playing when the Black Lives Matter movement had an international spotlight. Now after another incident of police brutality, players have circled back to the same concern from early July. 

“We shouldn’t have even [come] to this damn place, to be honest,” George Hill, a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, said in a press conference Monday. “Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. But we’re here. It is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here. But I think definitely when it all settles, some things need to be done.”

This widespread concern is all separate from the fact that the world is in the midst of a pandemic that has postponed collegiate sports across several major conferences, including the Pac-12. I cannot speak for every athlete; however, this absence of sports and national focus on injustices has altered my perception of where my priorities land at this moment in time.

Speaking from my experience as a collegiate volleyball player, schoolwork always comes first with volleyball following close behind in terms of personal priorities. With the time, mental toughness and physical endurance needed to invest in these activities, this leaves little room for awareness of the larger world around me.

With the absence of competition for the past five months, this void has been filled with an oversaturation of news regarding the election, the current global pandemic and protests for racial equality. 

This leaves me wondering: Once I begin competing again for volleyball, will my priority have to be playing volleyball? Does this mean I have to sacrifice being an active participant in the fight for social justice? Is there a balance between the two despite the mental energy that each drains? All these questions apply, but with even more urgency, for Black athletes as they have to actively consider their priorities in tandem with their own community of family and friends. 

Americans have always found solace in sports, as it offers a distraction from the worries of life at home. For the average fan, watching a game may help them forget the pressures of their work and everyday life. For the player, the game is their work. After the final buzzer, muscles and bones are going to need recovery. Film will need to be studied and preparations begin for the next game. 

Once the clock has expired and all the preparation has been done for the next game, how will their minds and bodies recover when they return to a world that is still in pain?

About 12 hours after finishing the first draft of this column, I received a notification that the Bucks had not taken the court in their Game 5 matchup to protest the shooting of Blake.

I was moved with immense pride by the leadership that my hometown team showed. My pride immediately grew even more as the Brewers followed suit, and eventually within the hour, the NBA had postponed every game that day to show solidarity with the players’ sentiments — all starting with the Bucks’ initial leadership.

After reading the Bucks’ statement on the situation following initial reactions, I hear echoes of the same principles that resonate in my own USC volleyball program.

“When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” the Bucks’ statement read. “We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from our lawmakers and law enforcement.”

Across all levels of competition, from high school to professional, a central principle of teamwork is accountability. A team cannot function to its highest potential without its members holding themselves and each other accountable. In this moment, our government will not perform its highest duty of representing its people unless we hold it and ourselves accountable. 

So until this happens, focus will be on national reform, not a playoff series. 

Liam Schroeder is a junior writing about sports and social justice. He is also a middle blocker on the USC men’s volleyball team. His column, “Athletes in Arms,” runs every Thursday.