Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Soccer Football – Women – Semifinal – United States v Canada – Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, Ibaraki, Japan – August 2, 2021. Nichelle Prince of Canada takes a knee before the match REUTERS/Mike Segar
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement marched on in 2021 but to the beat of a quieter drum as they moved from protest to action, implementing some of the change athletes helped put in the spotlight.
From tennis courts to soccer pitches and Formula One starting grids, athletes took their protests into the living rooms of sports fans around the world in 2020. Still, this year it was away from the arenas and stadiums and in the boardrooms where BLM attempted to make an impact.
If any league or team in North America did not have a diversity and inclusion department last year, most did in 2021, pressured by athletes and fans to develop plans to address social justice issues.
“What we are trying to do is position our league as a league for the new America,” said Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, making diversity a central plank in his annual state-of-league address. “We all have to have an awakening of what happened over the last year and ensure we are doing our part.
“Our diversity hiring initiative is bold, it’s not going to be easy but it is our attempt at making a difference.”
Athletes worldwide rose up in 2020 by joining together to show their outrage over racial injustice triggered by the death of George Floyd, a Black man gasping for air and calling for his mother as a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Floyd’s death forced a reckoning about racial injustice and gave a global profile to the BLM movement that has emerged in recent years to protest the deaths of African Americans in police custody.
Athletes in much smaller numbers and less frequency continued to take the knee or raise fists this year.
However, none of the headline-grabbing displays made as much of an impact as Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, who wore a mask with the name of a different Black American victim of police brutality before each of her matches at the U.S. Open.
In 2021, the Black Lives Matter message had become part of the game-day experience, with “End Racism” on the back of NFL football helmets and cleats and on the steering wheels of Formula One cars.
While athlete mental health became the dominant storyline at the Tokyo Olympics, some of those competing at the Games took advantage of performing on the world’s biggest sporting stage to keep the BLM movement in the spotlight.
Members of the women’s soccer teams of Britain, the U.S., Sweden, and New Zealand all took the knee before their opening matches to raise awareness about greater racial equality in sport.
“From our perspective, it’s been rewarding to see the activity that many of the leagues are taking on beyond awareness,” Trovon Williams, spokesperson for the NAACP, told Reuters.
“Awareness is great and we appreciate that, but the action to change many of the scenarios we saw play out over the last 18 months, that’s where we need the most assistance.”
Sir Lewis Hamilton Gets Knighted
Recognized for his advocacy, seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton received a knighthood for services to motorsport.
The 36-year-old Briton, the sport’s only Black driver, was made a Knight Bachelor by Prince Charles in a ceremony at Windsor Castle, outside London.
Hamilton is the fourth Formula One driver to receive the honorary title of “Sir” in Britain after the Australian Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart, and the only one to have received the award while still racing.
Hamilton has long championed the Black Lives Matter cause. In 2021, he wore a rainbow-coloured Progress Pride helmet at the last three races in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi to show his support to the LGBTQ+ community.
“Congratulations to seven times F1 World Champion and equality advocate Lewis Hamilton on receiving knighthood today,” American tennis great Billie Jean King tweeted.
“Lewis Hamilton continuously uses his platform to advocate for social change, and is so deserving of this honour.”
Cricket champion Michael Holding calls for more sports stars to speak out against racism
Michael Holding wants more sportspeople to step forward and speak out against racism.
The star athlete said it was important that public figures used their celebrity and status to convey important messages, particularly racism.
“If people who have a platform and who are able to reach out and get people to listen and people to understand, say nothing, then who will?” he asked. “There are sportspeople who are well known throughout the entire world. If they get up and say something, people around the world will want to hear what they have to say and will want to try to understand what they have to say.
“And that’s the reason why people with a platform, people with a name, people that are recognised all over the world, need to speak up about things that affect them and affect the world,” Holding said.
Holding, regarded as one of cricket’s authoritative commentators and regularly used by broadcasters worldwide, has spoken out extensively on racism since a passionate plea for society to change its attitudes following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Holding has published a book called Why We Kneel, How We Rise, which covers racism in sport and has contributions from several high-profile Black athletes.
“People must recognize that it’s all folks from different denominations and from different sectors and different parts of the world have done great things,” says Holding, who made sure to highlight the discoveries, innovations, and much more that people of colour have contributed throughout history.
Holding also said athletes should not confine their opinions to sporting matters.
“When they leave the arena, or the basketball courts, they have to go back into society to live a normal life. If they are affected by society, they have to speak up and use their platform.”