Athletes in Arms: A tale of two images in Kansas City

On Sept. 10, the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans began the NFL season by locking arms among themselves in a display of unity against social injustice. What was meant to be a reverent moment of silence soon turned into a cascade of fans heckling in disapproval.

Am I surprised that Kansas City fans booed both teams on opening night? No. Like a parent who’s not mad, however, I’m just disappointed. 

Following my immediate disappointment, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the most representative image of the United States I could imagine at the moment.” 

Rewind only four years ago and Colin Kaepernick is kneeling during the national anthem in protest against police brutality and racial oppression. As more players join him, fans of the NFL begin expressing wide disapproval, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who argued players who protest should be fired and leave the country. 

This past summer to now, the country has experienced a larger wave of protests that captured the attention and participation of millions. Many in power agreed there is systemic racism that the United States has to work to correct. The progress of the movement has been well-documented on social media and in news cycles.

This is why when I saw that players were still being booed, I sighed and paused for a moment. In the past, all summer and through to this current moment, millions of people made it their mission to have their voices heard, and some still have not listened. 

A central argument for those who opposed the protests was that protests needed to be done peacefully. According to data referenced in a Washington Post article, 93% of protests since the police killing of George Floyd were peaceful. This makes it abundantly frustrating when players protest peacefully and still receive disapproval. 

This leaves me wondering: When will the U.S. truly be receptive to the systemic issues it faces?

I recently read an article in The Players’ Tribune by Bill Russell, a Hall of Fame former NBA center during the 1950s-60s. In his piece “Racism is not a Historical Footnote,” he details his experience with racism in the U.S. as a Black man during the civil rights movement through today. 

Capturing the essence of racial violence in the country, Russell retells his grandfather’s story of surviving an attack by members of the Ku Klux Klan, then subsequently explaining, “Black kids today don’t grow up worried the Klan will kill them in the middle of the night — they worry the police will.”

The civil rights movement may seem distant in the past, but hearing a man recall violence from the KKK, the degrading nature of segregation and the unjust killing of Breonna Taylor all within the span of his lifetime puts things into perspective.

We are not living in a post-racial America, racism has just taken another face. 

Hearing fans preach about the greatness of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, then ridicule him and his teammates for being citizens opposed to social injustice demonstrates many fans’ dehumanizing views of athletes. 

I often hear “just leave politics out of sports,” in an effort to preserve the sense of escapism that comes with them, but now is actually the worst time to do so. 

I understand though, it might not be particularly captivating to hear legislators and media outlets argue back and forth perpetually about the multitude of issues in the U.S. During an election year, politics typically overrun the news, a trend that has been amplified with the rise of social media. 

Watching two family members go at it on Facebook is no worse than over the Thanksgiving table.

Unity and understanding are hard to come by now, but professional sports leagues have been an exemplary model that many should look to for a break from disagreement. These players standing in solidarity for social justice are not just points for your fantasy team, but citizens using their elevated status for good. Seeing them coming together like two opposing teams lined up together in protest should be a gleaming light of hope for the U.S.

Even more impressive is the image of Miami Heat power forward Meyers Leonard standing as his teammates kneel beside him, but with all three embracing each other in the moment. With his two teammates wrapping their arms around his legs and his arm on one of their shoulders, these gestures show a mutual respect and understanding.

So yes, for the foreseeable future, there will be racist resentment as U.S. politics take center stage in professional sports. And yes, there will be racism in the U.S. Instead of using sports as the distraction from racism in the country, use sports as a source of hope needed to believe that the United States can unify to move past it in the future to come.