Axe: Sports has always been an agent of change. How can it be again now?

Syracuse, N.Y. —It is most certainly not time to stick to sports but it’s also time to ask once again how
sports can bring about needed change.

The images we have seen across the country and in Syracuse have been a stark reminder of the racial tensions that still exist in our country and community despite the exhaustive effort of so many to remedy them.

It seems trivial to think about sports at time when so many are hurting over the death of George Floyd, the emotionally-charged protests that continue as a result of his death not to mention the lingering toll of the coronavirus epidemic.

That said, sports will be back in full-swing soon and has been an agent of change, including here in Syracuse, for years.

Ernie Davis was the first African-American football player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Don McPherson should have been the first African-American quarterback to win the award in 1987, but finished second to Notre Dame wide receiver Tim Brown.

The Syracuse 8 (it was technically 9 players) walked out of a spring practice in 1970 to protest racial discrimination on the campus of Syracuse University. They were shunned at the time but later celebrated and recognized for bringing an important issue to the forefront.

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim recalled back in November how having an African-American roommate, former SU star and NBA Hall of Famer Dave Bing, shaped his life.

“I roomed with an African-American teammate in 1963,” Boeheim said. “It was the greatest experience of my life. Helped me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life. That guy is still a big influence on my life today, what he showed me then and what he shows me every day. People need to understand that. As a university, we need to foster that as much as we can. I think in my time, my experience, we’ve done that. We’ve been through a lot of situations here in 57 years, and I think we’re very committed to something like that not happening at Syracuse University.”

Boeheim also put out a statement this weekend as the protests over George Floyd’s death played out across the country.

One of Boeheim’s former players, Etan Thomas, has been a consistent and important voice for social justice and change.

In a 2019 interview with’s Chris Carlson, Thomas spoke about the different realities in America when dealing with police officers.

“This is something that I’ve really had to come to grips with,” Thomas said. “There is a different reality that a lot of mainstream America can not relate to. It’s almost having to remove yourself from the comfort of being yourself and trying to see the world through someone else’s view. But it’s not your reality.

“So we talk about the police and the differences between when you are stopped by the police and when I am stopped by the police. There are huge differences. As an example my son Malcolm and I were coming from an AAU practice with one of his teammates and we were stopped by the police. I had a tail light that was out. I’m stopped by the police so I turn the music down, roll all the windows down, turn the interior light on, put my phone on record, my wallet on the dashboard, my hands at 10 and 2. Malcolm is looking at me doing all this stuff like, ‘What are you doing?’

“I have to think that I have to create a non-threatening environment,” Thomas said. “That has to be my first thought because it is a matter of life and death. My only concern at that point is to get home safely, and get Malcolm and his teammate home safely. That is not a reality mainstream America can relate to because that’s not what you think about when you are stopped by police. That’s a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow. That’s a hard pill for young people to swallow. Getting home safely is all that matters. There’s no point in trying to prove a point that we already know is true, that they are the ones that have the power and they are the ones that are afraid. That’s just the reality.”

Syracuse’s Dino Babers is one of just 13 African-American head football coaches at the Division I level. Babers hasn’t spoken out on the George Floyd issue yet as of this writing, but would surely be a welcome voice in the discussion.

The #NotAgainSU protests that dotted both semesters at Syracuse University before coronavirus halted in-person learning, cried out for help and change at SU and in our community.

If you doubted their message then, do you hear it now?

Sports provides us the forum to put our differences aside, walk into an arena and unite in rooting on our teams to victory.

How do we carry that mentality out of the arena to unite for a bigger cause?

It’s not easy to bring about cultural change, but sports has set an example on how to do it time and time again.

We need some fresh victories in this game.

Let’s get to work on the game plan for the next one.

Contact Brent Axe: Email | Twitter

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