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McElroy: Athletes aren't fictional characters created to entertain - they're real people and they have the same right to free speech as us

McElroy: Athletes aren't fictional characters created to entertain - they're real people and they have the same right to free speech as us

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Protesters march west on Forest Hill Avenue Friday, June 5, 2020.

These past 12 weeks have been challenging times: COVID-19, jobs and business lost, more than 100,000 deaths.

Then, just when we didn’t think 2020 could be any crueler, we all witnessed the murder of George Floyd, and the resulting protests around the nation and world.

It’s been a bad week for what I call “stick to sports” people.

They like to tell athletes, coaches, sports talk show hosts or brilliant columnists like my colleague David Teel to stop discussing or writing “the real world” and just stick to “the sports world.”

If you are of that small-minded bubble, your world is shrinking.

I know I have lost some listeners to my radio show and my Twitter followers have decreased because of the open discussion that I hoped to have provided this week. Well, that’s OK, because I’m 41, not 14, so my world doesn’t revolve around how many I do or don’t have.

Many members of the “stick to sports” crowd like to say, “I want sports to be a distraction from politics, government and global ‘stuff.’”

Well, with the exception of NASCAR, horse racing and the Bundesliga, games are few and far between, and if you want to be distracted from what you are witnessing this week, then you are part of the problem, not the solution.

Sure, there is only so much news we can take in, and we all need the occasional “Outer Banks” and “Ozark” to take our minds off things. But John B and Marty Byrde are fictional characters.

LeBron James, Sean Doolittle, Trevor Lawrence and Richard Sherman are real people with real feelings and experiences.

“Guys are thinking we entertain America, and maybe it’s on us to keep some issues at the forefront. We aren’t just entertainment,” said my radio co-host and NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson. “I know it goes back to the Romans and the Coliseum and we’re just entertainment and we’re ‘a distraction,’ but no longer can we be a distraction. No longer can we overlook this, or we’re just repeating the same history.”

We shouldn’t need a distraction from this. There have been too many “distractions” over 60 years.

Thursday evening NFL players Patrick Mahomes, Michael Thomas, Odell Beckham Jr, and Deshaun Watson, among other superstars, released a video called “Stronger Together,” where they asked the NFL to issue a statement condemning racism and police brutality stating: “We will not be silenced. We assert our right to peacefully protest. It shouldn’t take this long to admit.”

The following night commissioner Roger Goodell issued a video response: “We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe that black lives matter.”

Four years ago, I was one of many who initially responded to Colin Kaepernick’s protest with a similar response to that of Drew Brees earlier this week. I, too, will forever stand for the national anthem because of the freedoms fought for by my father, an Air Force veteran and grandfather, a World War II B-17 gunner.

Yet, it was pointed out to me by a listener of the same age that his grandfather also fought in the same war, wore the same uniform, and battled the same enemy. But upon returning home, his grandfather couldn’t eat at the same restaurant or use the same bathroom because he was black.

My grandfather returned home a hero; his was treated like a second-class citizen.

It took time and understanding for me to realize Kaepernick’s protest wasn’t about the military or the anthem, it was about police brutality and racism. I missed the mark.

Four years ago, it was easy to say Kaepernick was unpatriotic and anti-American. It was harder to listen.

Truth be told, he didn’t make it easy on himself, with his “pig socks” and Fidel Castro T-shirt. But what the then-49ers quarterback was protesting was real, and for some, the message didn’t hit home until they saw the video of Derek Chauvin taking his own knee onto the neck of Floyd last Monday.

If you want to discuss patriotism, the Declaration of Independence declares life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as inalienable rights. But the same liberties aren’t afforded to everyone.

The problem with many in the “stick to sports” crowd is we are only on board with something if it agrees with our beliefs.

Player A says, “I want to raise money to cure cancer.” That’s not sports, but we say he’s a hero.

Player B takes issue against the lack of policy or a failure in the system, calling out an elected official in your party. Well, then the response quickly becomes, “Well, what does he know? He’s a dumb jock.”

One player who responded thoughtfully earlier this year was University of Richmond basketball standout Nick Sherod, who spoke out after an incident of racism on the UR campus.

“I just wanted to help in a way that I could,” he said on my radio show this week. “I have a platform as a basketball player here at Richmond especially as a black basketball player to speak out on things that I feel strongly about, and it was something on campus I felt strongly about.

“These [pro] athletes are using their platform to really speak on things they care about, so for me, whenever I have the chance or whenever you have the opportunity to change or talk about something like that ... you have to take that opportunity.”

There are times where we may want sports to just be a distraction, present company included, but players are entitled to express their beliefs, opinions, and the many experiences of adversity that possibly neither you nor I grew up around.

It is their courage to speak out and use their popular platforms that we should admire instead of admonish.

Wes McElroy hosts a daily

sports talk show from 2-6 p.m.

on 910 and 105.1.

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