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Republicans want Black people to disappear. Sports leagues can help stop them

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
·6 min read

Athletes, politicians and even corporate America have been speaking out about the recent Republican-led legislation in Georgia that seems to target Black citizens by making it harder for them to vote. But for all the sabre-rattling, finger-wagging and stern letter-writing, it was Major League Baseball who actually took direct action on 2 April by moving their All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado, stating, “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.” Republican senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mike Lee – three of Donald Trump’s most notorious sock puppets – immediately tried to punish the league’s defense of democracy by proposing legislation to remove MLB’s antitrust exemption. Didn’t work. But their unspoken threat to all professional sports leagues who may wish to join the fray loomed large.

After years of bullying their athletes for their passive protests, most sports teams became “woke” following last summer’s massive Black Lives Matter marches of between 15 and 26 million people, the largest protests in US history. It was a glorious phoenix-like ascension of sports leagues to the heights of social morality. Today, we need that commitment more than ever, because if there were ever a case of Black lives not mattering, it’s the nearly 250 laws since the November election that have been passed around the country designed to marginalize Black voters. It’s time for all sports leagues – who are supposed to embody the American ideals of teamwork, fair play and level playing fields – to join as one voice to represent their players, their fans and their Constitution in stopping this attempt to steal democracy.

In the past, sports leagues have been disjointed in responding to social injustice, either by ignoring it or by tepidly supporting general reform someday in the future. More recently, the NBA has led an aggressive and active response to fight inequities. Other leagues from major sports have also launched worthy campaigns. But real power for change will happen only if they all coordinate in an effort to condemn the restrictive laws in every state that passes them, and take concrete action to boycott those states – even if it means some financial sacrifice.

Related: 'Jim Crow in the 21st century': Biden denounces Georgia Republicans over new voting law

Economic pressure is an effective means of persuasion, not just from the millions of dollars lost from the All-Star Game, but also from other groups that are inspired to take action by not holding a convention or not building a corporate headquarters or even not vacationing in Georgia. Ten days after the MLB’s announcement, Hollywood star Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua announced they were moving their movie Emancipation from Georgia to Louisiana, explaining, “We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access.” Good conscience is exactly what we need.

Georgians I admire and respect, like Stacey Abrams (our president someday, I hope), understandably are against a boycott, arguing that it will hurt the people we’re actually trying to help: minorities who depend on sporting events, the movie industry, tourism etc for their income. While that’s true, there’s a much greater damage to all the Black people in Georgia and other states. Yes, some will lose out on some income, which is no small thing. But without this action, they, their families, their children and Black people throughout the country will lose their political voice and power. Not only do laws like this diminish their political clout it tells the rest of the country – and the world – that it’s OK to treat Blacks as second-class citizens because it’s legal. The longer we wait and debate and threaten, the more emboldened Republican legislatures in other states become to expand their campaign of racism.

Related: Trans kids deserve the same opportunity that made my NFL career possible

Sadly, it’s not just racism that they are promoting. They’ve declared war on many marginalized groups. Senators Cruz and Hawley, who threatened MLB over their move, revealed their true agenda when they recently joined four other Republicans in voting against a bill designed to stem anti-Asian American hate crimes. It passed 92-6. Also targeted by Republican legislatures are the LGBTQ+ community. In 2019, states introduced 19 anti-transgender bills. Only four months into 2021, 33 states have introduced a record-breaking 117 anti-transgender bills. This year has also seen a record number of bills restricting a woman’s reproductive autonomy, with 516 new abortion restrictions.

Clearly, what happens in Georgia doesn’t stay in Georgia. The Republican Flu infects the rest of the states with a full-frontal assault on everyone who is not a straight white male. If they don’t value you enough to give you full access to voting, then why should they value you at a traffic stop (Daunte Wright), at a grocery store (George Floyd), in your own home (Breonna Taylor)? So, yeah, going after Georgia with all the power at our disposal should be our first priority. That should be followed by boycotting every state that is virtueless-signaling to come join enslaving people of color to the greedy political masters who would subvert democracy.

In 1968, I boycotted the Olympics because I didn’t feel I could represent a country that was actively suppressing the civil rights of Black people while beating, jailing and murdering those who spoke out against it. I was in part inspired by my involvement in the Cleveland Summit the year before during which myself and several other famous athletes debated the sincerity of Muhammad Ali boycotting the draft as a conscientious objector. Ali’s decision cost him his heavyweight title, millions of dollars and threatened his imprisonment. Even when the government offered him a deal that would have restored that, he refused. Ali’s choice, and to a much lesser extent my own, gained us nothing and cost us a lot. But in speaking out, in taking direct action, we both focused the nation’s eyes on the disparity in our country and nudged the boulder of civil rights a few feet farther up the mountain.

On 10 April, more than 100 CEOs and corporate leaders from airlines, to retailers, to manufacturers and one NFL owner met online to discuss taking action against the bills in Georgia and other states that restrict voting. Among remedies considered was withholding political donations to anyone supporting these bills. No decisions were reached. However, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned them to “stay out of politics”, which I hope they remember when McConnell and his GOP acolytes come begging for campaign contributions. It’s the equivalent of telling athletes who voice political opinions to “shut up and dribble”. These Republicans have made it clear that when it comes to politics, Black people should remain silent, business leaders should remain silent and athletes should remain silent. Only they have the right to speak.

The thing about athletes is that they love a challenge, they love winning and they aren’t afraid to face any opponent. The time for discussion is over; the time for action is now. To see all the major sports leagues coming together to fight against oppression would be the greatest team-up since the Marvel Universe came together to take out Thanos, another megalomaniac douchebag who thought his twisted will superseded everyone else’s. The GOP would like the marginalized to disappear at the snap of their fingers. Instead, we’re going to make their hate-bills disappear, their hate-rhetoric disappear, and their hate-careers disappear.