The murder of George Floyd mobilizes the world of sport beyond the United States

“I can’t breathe” ((” I can not breathe “). It was 2014. The message, in white capital letters, barred LeBron James’ chest. Then a player in the Cleveland (Ohio) Cavaliers, the star of the NBA (the American basketball league), sported with his teammates the last words of Eric Garner, a 44-year-old black man killed by a New York police officer. Six years later, those same words made a comeback, with the death of George Floyd, an African-American killed during an arrest by Minneapolis police on Monday, May 25.

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” Again ? “asked LeBron James on his social networks. The basketball player, who now plays for the Lakers in Los Angeles (California), was not the only one to react. This new police violence against an American black – who was also a good sportsman until university and a close friend of former basketball player Stephen Jackson – moved and mobilized sportsmen as rarely in the past.

The positions have gone beyond the sole framework of some North American sports, such as basketball, where the engagement of certain actors on societal subjects is not recent. In Europe, reactions have also multiplied. Speaking was not the only fact of black sports figures: white sportsmen and sportswomen also expressed themselves.

Colin Kaepernick’s gesture as a reference

French footballer Marcus Thuram, May 31, 2020, during the match Borussia Mönchengladbach against Union Berlin.
French footballer Marcus Thuram, May 31, 2020, during the match Borussia Mönchengladbach against Union Berlin. MARTIN MEISSNER / AFP

Knee to the ground, head bowed … A gesture served as a reference for a number of denunciations and expressions of solidarity: that adopted by Colin Kaepernick in September 2016 during the American anthem before an NFL preseason match ( the american football league). The player had thus tried to alert to the police violence against blacks in the United States. This action had earned him exclusion from the League. And to become one of the icons of the Black Lives Matter movement.

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” That’s why “, simply wrote LeBron James, juxtaposing the photo of the death of George Floyd under the knee of policeman Derek Chauvin with that of Colin Kaepernick, knee on the ground. Sunday May 31, it was the French footballer Marcus Thuram who celebrated a goal with one knee on the ground, head bowed during a match in the Bundesliga, the German Championship, rare sporting competition to have resumed after the stop caused by the coronavirus epidemic. In echo, the full squad of English clubs Liverpool and Chelsea reproduced the pose in training, respectively Monday and Tuesday.

Until then, the world of football had made sure that players did not matter “Political considerations” in the field. But even today the president of FIFA, the international federation, Gianni Infantino, has insisted on supporting these marks of support in a press release. “To clear up any ambiguity, the recent protests by players during Bundesliga matches should be applauded, not sanctioned. We must all say no to any form of racism and discrimination. “

White sportspeople take a stand

“The black community needs our help. Open your ears, listen and speak. It’s not politics. It's human rights,
“The black community needs our help. Open your ears, listen and speak. It’s not politics. It’s human rights, “said American football player Joe Burrow (here in New Orleans, January 13, 2020). Sue Ogrocki / AP

The times are changing. Former American basketball player Michael Jordan, who had always kept his distance from political or societal positions during his career – and for this reason had suffered his share of criticism – also denounced “Entrenched racism and violence against people of color in our country”.

To make a difference, many black sportspeople have called on the entire world of sport to tackle racism. “We need so many more athletes who don’t look like me to talk about this, to express the same level of indignation”, urged African-Canadian hockey player Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks last weekend to air one of ESPN’s most important programs. “We have been indignant for hundreds of years, and nothing has changed. It’s time for guys like Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby [stars du football américain et du hockey] to talk about what is good and, clearly in the present case, what is absolutely not. “

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This rare speech in hockey, hardly used to seeing his players – overwhelmingly white – speaking on social issues, was followed by others and opened the floodgates. Unlike four years ago, when supporters of Colin Kaepernick – notably footballer Megan Rapinoe – could be counted on the fingers of one hand, white sportsmen expressed, without claiming to understand what being black means , a desire to approach the subject of racism, collectively. “The black community needs our help. Open your ears, listen and speak. It’s not politics. It’s about human rights “said American football player Joe Burrow.

Even Roger Goodell, the boss of the very conservative NFL went there of his press release, offering condolences to the family of George Floyd and calling for action: “We recognize the power of our platform in communities and in American society and accept this responsibility. “ His statement was however vilified by many sportsmen and observers, who did not fail to recall that in 2016 Colin Kaepernick had been banished from the League, eager not to be against the most conservative of his fans .

Registration in a collective movement

In France, like other athletes, Kylian Mbappé also followed suit, and reported on Twitter his support for the family of George Floyd. Hardly accustomed until then to express himself outside his comfort zone – the field -, the French world champion, fan of LeBron James, then posted a message of support to a teenager – from Bondy like him – arrested violently, drawing a parallel between the “Police violence, whether from here or elsewhere”.

These statements by athletes are also part of a collective movement. “The Black Lives Matter movement, and more generally the social justice movements in the United States, are gaining momentum, observes Nicolas Martin-Breteau, specialist in African-American history at the University of Lille. Millions of anonymous people are mobilizing, making it easier for athletes to speak out. “ As in the years 1960-1970, where “The speaking of black American sportsmen, like Mohammed Ali, was also carried by a deep social movement”, for civil rights.

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The emotion aroused by the death of George Floyd shows it. The hour of champions who let their feet speak for them, or agree to “Shut up and dribble”, Fox News reporter ’injunction to LeBron James after comments on Donald Trump, seems to be over.

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