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Following NCAA Ruling, Penn State Has A Chance To Do The Right Thing

on August 03, 2020 2:55 PM

It has never been good business to bring politics into sports.

And as the NCAA ruled in favor of allowing athletes to wear social justice patches or even change the name on their uniforms for a message, the inevitable uproar arrived right on schedule in reply to nearly every Facebook and Twitter post you could find.

The threat in far fewer words: “Let these athletes speak up — put politics into sports — and we’re gone.”

In fairness, nobody watches the NBA Finals so they can debate healthcare. Nobody is finding Steve Jones on the dial to hear about fracking or offshore drilling. Wanting an escape from the everyday noise is a fair and reasonable thing. Sports have always been that outlet.

But social justice isn’t political. Perhaps the solutions are, but bringing these problems to light and pushing forward against anger and hate is the duty-bound obligation of those in a position to spread their message. To deny them that right in a moment so significant as this one is to support decades of a status quo where the loud and angry have held sway over what has made the peace.

Life, or perhaps more importantly change, is not that simple.

“A wise man will not leave the right [of voting or freedom] to the mercy of chance, nor wish it prevail through the power of the majority.” -Henry David Thoreau writes in Civil Disobedience.

Those words ring true in a moment like this, a moment when athletes have the floor, when some of the most visible members of the Black community have been afforded the freedoms to truly represent people who look like them. Suddenly they have grabbed the leverage and they are no longer subdued by that majority which has rendered them silent for so long.

For years the silence of athletes was the product of a predominantly white patronage, a group that, in part, just wanted LeBron to shut up and dribble, that wants everyone to stand for the anthem, that wants the right kind of protest but only if it makes them feel comfortable. And if a protest makes those on the receiving end comfortable, is it really a protest at all?

Sports have always been political. It has simply always been white politics.

Now the tables have turned, and athletes have not let go.

It seems worthwhile to note that Penn State and every college football program find themselves in a difficult spot at this moment in time. With the football season perpetually on the brink of cancelation, anything that rocks the boat or could influence the bottomline is not a risk worth taking. The ticket-paying costumer, some of whom may be upset by a small semblance of discomfort, has always held the power, but that lasts only as long as they are in the majority.

When this is all said and done, Penn State football will be fine, and Penn State athletics will have rebounded into something approximating what it looked like just 12 months ago. The obstacle of COVID-19 is fleeting and finite; it will pass and with it the uncertainty of tomorrow.

But when Penn State looks back in five years, it will have to reconcile the decision it makes in this moment regarding messages on the uniforms, a choice that would go in the face of decades of nameless tradition, save a few brief years under Bill O’Brien aside.

And in the memory of that moment it will have to ask itself, did it support the growth and betterment of its student-athletes or did it succumb to the same old line of thinking? Did it allow its Black athletes to find safe harbor or did it allow angry comments on Facebook and in emails and in threats of donations pulled to dictate its choices, and in turn tell those same athletes to speak out or protest on their own time.

Did it decide that the same old same old was fine, or did it listen to the student-athletes who so visibly represent the university and allow their voices to be heard?

Much of this comes back to the Jonathan Sutherland incident and the implication that his hair was unprofessional. The idea that professionals only look one way, the idea that how Penn State had done things for years — no earrings, long hair or semblance of individualism — was acceptable. The idea that in essence the white perception of professionalism was right. Everything else was wrong.

When you boil it down, that has always been a farce. Teams are not closer because they are militarized; they are not stronger for being the same. The greatness in sports comes from differences melding together, from personalities meshing and the product of backgrounds from all walks of life producing unity. The intent may have never been malicious, but when Joe Paterno and coaches across America decided what was right and what was wrong, they opted for the look that more closely resembled them. The why is neither a mistake nor a mystery.

The solutions to systemic racism are not simple. They span a wide range of issues, from educational investment and employment opportunity to real estate, generational wealth and the justice system. They are complex and political, they are emotional and difficult. They are the product of both black and white, and the true betterment of the union will come from all walks of life.

But in this moment, uniforms aren’t about those answers. They’re about reminding you there is a problem. And maybe you don’t want to hear about it or maybe it makes you feel uncomfortable.

And maybe it’s time that you didn’t feel so comfortable. If a little societal self-reflection upsets you, imagine living in that society that has accepted you only in exchange for your silence. Imagine not having the privilege to be outraged. Then imagine finally grasping it with both hands.

What would you do next? Why must you please those who have only ever wanted your silent entertainment?

Civil rights leader John Lewis’s death is an unfortunate chapter in this ongoing saga, but is perhaps in its own way a reminder that the battle for equality has been generational, and the work is not simply done because it makes us feel better to say that it is. As the nation boils and erupts under its own stress and unhappiness, there has never been a better moment to get into some good trouble.

And Penn State has a chance to support that good trouble, but it has to first decide that its athletes are more important than its bottomline.

Because if equality is bad for business, it's time to rethink how you're doing business.

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