Athletes’ protests do matter: just ask the victims’ families they stand up for


Show caption Gwen Berry during her protest at the US Olympic trials in 2021. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP Sport Athletes’ protests do matter: just ask the victims’ families they stand up for The likes of LeBron James and Gwen Berry are accused of useless posturing. But many families of those killed by police find comfort in their support Etan Thomas Fri 25 Feb 2022 11.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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For Black History Month, I conducted a panel discussion with Athletes For Hope and sponsored by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition.

Berry listened to the painful stories of the panelists, their continued fight for justice for their loved ones and their gratitude to athletes like Berry, LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick, who use their platforms to bring awareness to police brutality in the US.

Berry’s stand at the Olympic trials caused a predictable backlash from the right. Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw called for Berry to be “removed from the [US Olympic] team.” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who was US ambassador to the UN in the Trump administration, said that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee “should make sure that no one should go to the Olympics that does not want to represent America.” Fox News brought in Jack Brewer, a former NFL player, to condemn Berry. Brewer, who is Black, compared her unfavorably to Jesse Owens and said that there are Black people who experience “real racism” in the US but are thankful to be in this country.

Berry told me that her critics’ attacks did not bother her.

“I owe my critics nothing. A lot of people don’t know about these women’s stories, the families of people who died at the hands of police brutality and they are survivors, so what do I owe them [critics]? I owe them nothing, I owe these women something. I owe their families something. I owe their stories something. That’s where I stand,” she said.

“Listening to these stories is heartbreaking. There are so many people who are either ignorant or blinded to what’s really happening in America. So many corporations claim they support Black Lives Matter but they do nothing to actually hold police or the justice system accountable.”

Berry had experienced backlash even before her protest at the Olympic trials. At the 2019 Pan American Games, she raised a fist on the podium, and duly lost sponsors and a large part of her income. If anything, Berry’s sacrifice was more severe than those of LeBron and Kaepernick, who at least had millions in the bank from lucrative professional careers when they made their stands.

“The Pan American Games are a much smaller Olympic Games, and since it was in an ‘underdeveloped country’ I didn’t know if it was going to be broadcast. But the world had an immediate reaction. I was immediately defunded by two of my biggest sponsors, Nike being one. I actually made another championship team and throughout that process they were trying to keep me from the team. They didn’t want me to participate and labeled me anti-American. But I was actually exercising my constitutional right,” Berry said.

“Too often when athletes stand up for the communities they come from, they’re punished. So they shut up, and the other athletes see what happened to you and they say ‘Well, we aren’t going to say anything’ because when I lost 80% of my salary, it shut everybody up on the Olympic team. And that was done on purpose … but I have no regrets.”

While there are those who still tell athletes to “shut up and dribble” or question the significance of an athlete using their platform for social justice, it’s important that we consider the opinion of people who have been directly impacted. And that doesn’t just apply to police killings. Muhammad Ali stood up for those affected by the Vietnam War and MLB player Carlos Delgado did the same for the US invasion of Iraq. Just this week Formula One driver Sebastian Vettel has boycotted the Russian Grand Prix over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. As Emerald Garner told the panel about the comfort the likes of Berry, LeBron and Kaepernick gave her:

“I want to thank all athletes like Ms Berry for standing with us. It really means a lot. Without these athletes using their platform, a lot of people wouldn’t know what happened to our loved ones. It took athletes like Ms Berry, LeBron, Colin Kaepernick to bring this to the stadiums, these arenas, these platforms where you get millions and millions of views and sometimes it leads to officers being held accountable for what they did because of the attention they brought to it. So yes it means everything.”