#HandsUpDontShoot and the enduring impact of Michael Sam in the NFL
Photo by L.G. Patterson/A.P.
Just before yesterday’s St. Louis Rams/Oakland Raiders football game in St. Louis, a group of five St. Louis Rams players led the team onto the field with their hands in the air, a reference to the past week’s Ferguson protests. The “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture was soon condemned as “offensive” by the St. Louis Police Officers Association. In the words of SLPOA Business Manager Jeff Roorda:
“I know that there are those that will say that these players are simply exercising their First Amendment rights. Well I’ve got news for people who think that way, cops have first amendment rights too, and we plan to exercise ours. I’d remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertiser's products. It’s cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters.”
In the St. Louis area, response was predictably polarized. Many pointed out the irony of Roorda calling out a group young black men for showing their support of a community grappling with the death of a young black man, while others seemed to channel his sentiments using the #RamsFanNoMore hashtag.
The national media similarly scrambled to make sense of the gesture— some celebrating it in the context of black athletes like Tommie Smith and John Carlos who made the black power salute on the Olympic podium in 1968 in Mexico City. Others seemed to suggest that something criminal lurked beneath the Rams’ bold gesture. NJ.com, for instance, pointed to the “several run-ins with the police” that apparent ringleader Kenny Britt had in the past.
Amidst all of the debate, however, no one has really examined Roorda’s conspicuous claim that the Rams pre-game statement was essentially about First Amendment rights. As the logic goes, the Rams players believed that an injustice was perpetrated against Michael Brown that was compounded by Darren Wilson’s exoneration, and that the gesture was simply the players expressing that opinion. Not that any of us have any reason to all of a sudden have faith in “evidence,” but the facts seem to point towards the gesture being made in support of a community rather than defiance of one.
When asked after the game if the team was taking sides, Britt told reporters, “No, not at all. We just wanted to let the community know that we support them.” Rams tight end Jared Cook struck a similar conciliatory note: “Whatever happened from both sides, there has to be some kind of change.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that in the week leading up to yesterday’s game, several of the Rams players were vowing to “win one for Ferguson.” Said linebacker James Laurinaitis: “I think that the store owners that were looted, you feel for them and what they’re going through. You feel for the kids that had school canceled. You just want things to get back to normal as soon as possible.”
These hardly sound like the voices of defiance. They are neither Muhammad Ali taking a stand against the Vietnam War or a group of thugs taking a stand in defense of lawlessness. They are the voices of civic engagement.
What happened yesterday just prior to the game at the Edward Jones Dome had less to do with free speech than about an emerging form of social engagement that professional athletes are having with the world. These athletes don’t view sports as mere merriments, abstractions from the messiness of civil society—but as intimately connected with the social world.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this public gesture occurred on the very same field that, just months earlier, the first openly gay NFL player first strode. In drafting Michael Sam, Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher refused to accept the notion that the messy realities of contemporary social life should be treated as “distractions” in the mythical oasis of the “level playing field.”
When Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Tayvon Austin (who’s first name NFL announcers consistently mangle as “Trayvon”) took the field yesterday with their arms held aloft, they were showing that they had internalized a valuable lesson from their coach—that sports are not fantastical spaces for escape, but part of our social universe, the same as a neighborhood liquor store.
Today, the St. Louis Rams stand as a stark counterpoint to Washington Redskins supporters bemoaning the “special interest groups,” encroaching upon their hallowed history pressuring the team to update its mascot in the name of “political sensitivity” and to a generation of athletes proclaiming “I am not a role model” as if it were sacred writ. In their conscientious signal to the community, the Rams showed once again that the fight for justice is hardly a distraction.
By the way, the Rams beat the Raiders yesterday, 52-0.