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Athletes as Leaders

June 19th, 2020 by dk

Have you noticed where leadership is emerging, as our nation convulses toward some sort of reckoning with its past? State and city leaders do not have a nationwide audience, and messaging from Washington has been mixed at best. The voices rising above the chaos are coming from professional athletes.

You may have noticed some of these voices, without recognizing a pattern. Redemptive energy is coming from football, boxing, basketball (twice), and stock car racing.

If you think it’s no big deal that NASCAR has renounced the Confederate flag, you haven’t spent much time in the rural midwest or the deep south. In the land of Dixie, summer isn’t summarized with apple pie and baseball. It’s all about Stars and Bars and muscle cars.

I attended the Indianapolis 500 several times in my youth. Although the speedway was only a three-hour drive from Chicago, we learned to leave the afternoon before the race. Traffic would be backed up for 20 miles in every direction. We’d get nearby before dark, park on the street once we had our place in line, enter the speedway a little after dawn, and sleep through most of the race — us and 300,000 others.

Confederate flags won’t disappear from race tracks. People will still bring the flag and celebrate their heritage in their own way, but they won’t be watching that flag race in circles before them. It won’t adorn any of their racing heroes. It will remain part of individual expression, but no longer part of the collective experience.

Basketball players have also stepped up. Michael Jordan committed $100 million to causes devoted to racial and social justice. LeBron James will organize voter registration drives. WNBA players negotiated their explicit right to take public stands against injustices they encounter.

This current drive for athletic self-expression began when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem. He wanted to call attention to police violence against communities of color. For that stance, Kaepernick was ostracized from football. It has also made him a superstar beyond the sport.

When the commissioner for the NFL announced that the league was wrong to prohibit such displays of conviction, he didn’t mention Kaepernick’s name. He didn’t need to. Everybody knew who was the victor. Kaepernick may never play professional football again, but he’s winning a much bigger battle.

Finally, there was one more sports hero who may have escaped your notice. Floyd Mayweather was a professional prizefighter for 20 years, winning major world titles in five weight classes. He retired a few years ago, but reacted swiftly to the brutal death of George Floyd. He immediately offered to cover all expenses related to Floyd’s funeral.

Mayweather’s contribution created lasting impressions. The eulogy was delivered by a nationally known activist. Family members of other brutalized blacks who were in attendance. The casket was taken to the cemetery by a horse-drawn carriage. The grief was riveting. It focused the country’s attention like nothing else.

As sport gingerly re-enters the national consciousness, athletes will attempt to sustain Americans’ attention on this issue in the months and years ahead.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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