In athletes’ forceful response to Uvalde, advocates see ‘a tipping point’


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On the evening of May 26 — two days after the school shooting that claimed 21 lives in Uvalde, Tex., and two days before the first pitch of a series between the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox — executives of the teams got on the phone to discuss how to acknowledge the tragedy.

The executives, White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert and Cubs senior vice president of communications and community affairs Julian Green, quickly agreed this was a moment that demanded a more ambitious plan.

About 36 hours later, Chicago’s five professional teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB — the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox — released a statement under their shared community-outreach umbrella, the Chicago Sports Alliance, announcing a $250,000 donation, split between the Robb School Memorial Fund, which benefits the Uvalde victims’ families, and Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit working to end school shootings.

“It is our responsibility to those innocent lives lost to do more,” the statement read. “We are committed to making a difference through the resources in our power to solving this gun violence epidemic. Lives depend on it. This is not a game.”

It was one among the thousands of gestures, statements and social media posts that emerged from the sports world, as they did from all segments of American life, in the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre. And it was far from the most visible — a distinction that could be reserved for Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr’s emotional pregame comments or San Francisco Giants Manager Gabe Kapler’s decision to skip the national anthem, LeBron James’s all-caps pleadings on Twitter or the WNBA’s media blackout.

But as an example of how athletes, teams and leagues have evolved in their approach to social issues, particularly in the realm of gun violence, the joint effort by the Chicago teams — with its shift from words to action and its advocacy for gun control — may be the most instructive. Formed in 2017 to confront its own city’s issues with gun violence, the Chicago Sports Alliance had not expanded its reach to a national scale until last week.

“It’s unheard of to get five organizations onboard that quickly,” Reifert said of the hectic 36 hours last week. Gaining the approval of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (who also owns the Bulls) on the statement and donation, he added, “took 15 seconds.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this type of momentum on an issue — certainly on this issue,” said Green, a former press secretary to then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama (D) who has worked for the Cubs for 11 years. “For us to mobilize in the way we did … is indicative of how passionate this group is to try to effect change, which we will continue to do. I hope this [momentum] continues across the sports world.”

The momentum emerging from the sports world, stronger and more organized than after previous school shootings, has been embraced at the forefront of the movement to reform gun laws.

“We see this as a major tipping point,” said Angela Ferrell-Zabala, senior vice president of movement building at Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control. “These athletes and teams, they’re meeting the moment.”

The effort to sustain the momentum will face a crucial test this week. As it happens, the start of the NBA Finals, which give the league its biggest platform of the year, coincides with Everytown’s annual Wear Orange Weekend. Some MLB teams and the entire WNBA have pledged to wear orange T-shirts during pregame warm-ups.

“Our members are organized and looking to amplify Everytown’s message on gun control,” said Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. “I knew they were going to have a very emotional response about Texas, and you’re going to see it [manifest] in different ways.”

Tamika Tremaglio, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, said she has been involved in discussions with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver over how to acknowledge Uvalde during the Finals. Regardless of what organized gesture is presented, NBA players will remain out front on social matters, including gun-control issues.

“I can tell you that what our players feel now more than ever is they have tremendous power in their platforms and that they can directly advocate for changes in their communities and in our country,” Tremaglio said. “They want to see actual change happening.”

The recent-years shift on guns that has taken place in the sports world is easy to see, and there are ugly mileposts by which to measure it: the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo., in which 13 were killed, and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 were killed.

“If you remember, we were at the very youngest stages of the blowup of the Internet,” said Seattle Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto, who was a relief pitcher for the Colorado Rockies at the time of the Columbine shooting. “Social media really wasn’t a thing yet. We were very early in the mass use of cellphones. Texting still wasn’t really a thing. We met in the effort to try to raise awareness for how we could stop this from happening again. Nobody really knew how to message that.

“ … AT the time, it was such a shock to the country. The thing that is most discouraging is that [those incidents are] more prevalent today. Unfortunately, it’s not as shocking.”

Even the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, though it was only four years ago, might as well have occurred in a different era. While somber statements and social media posts flooded in from all over, fewer prominent athletes, let alone teams or leagues, were willing to advocate for gun control, which was then and remains a political flash point.

In a notable example, then-Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a graduate of Stoneman Douglas who knew some of the victims, shied away from commenting on gun issues when he spoke in the immediate aftermath. Rizzo eventually added his voice to calls for “common-sense” gun laws, but that transition took weeks.

The contrast between 2018 and 2022 is startling. This time, countless athletes raised their voices — not only to decry the violence or lament the loss of life but to advocate directly for gun control.

“We’re living in an insane country when it comes to gun control and gun laws. It actually struck me when we went to do a moment of silence today because we just did one three f—ing days ago for a different mass shooting in a different city,” said OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe, referring to the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo in which 10 were killed. Gun control, she said, is “something that the vast majority of the country wants. I urge people to use their voice and vote, or to call their representative or to badger their representatives, or to vote them out if they don’t change this, because we’re just quite literally being held hostage in this country for no reason whatsoever.”

Teams shifted into the realm of advocacy, too. An announcement made to the crowd after a moment of silence and before tip-off of Game 5 of the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics matchup in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals would have been unheard of in 2018: “The Heat urges you to contact your state senators … to leave a message demanding their support for common-sense gun laws. You can also make change at the ballot box.”

Several factors appear to be behind the shift. For starters, advocates said, the accumulated toll of the many mass shootings has led to a rising sense of frustration — among many Americans, including athletes — that more frequently boils over.

“This is a cumulative effect,” Ferrell-Zabala said. “We lose 110 people daily to gun violence.”

But 2022 also finds athletes, and teams, with a maturing sense of the powers of their voice, both through social and traditional media, and a willingness to wield that voice for social change — a power that has been honed through the cultural upheaval of the past several years, particularly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

“The old idea that sports and politics aren’t supposed to mix has always made it hard to do any kind of advocacy, let alone protest. But that has started to erode,” said Douglas Hartmann, a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the author of two books on athletes and social justice issues.

The charged political atmosphere of the Trump administration, Hartmann added, also fueled a sense of urgency and confrontation on the part of athletes.

“The way that Trump and the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement … were overtly politicizing sports in ways that political figures and presidents have never done before — I think among athletes there has been a backlash to that: ‘We have to stand up to that,’ ” Hartmann said. “There was a kind of opposition from Trump and others, and then a re-opposition to that and a doubling-down from athletes — ‘Screw the old politics-and-sports-are-separate mentality’ — and a feeling that sports should be a progressive platform to call attention to social issues.”

Not long ago, teams might punish — or at least admonish behind the scenes — players who got too political on social media, for fear of alienating significant parts of their fan bases. And while there might still be tension between employees and employers over how far they should go, it is perhaps as common now for athletes and teams to be of the same mind.

“We’ve urged all of our players to speak what’s in their heart,” Dipoto said. “They have a unique platform. Believe me, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that [critics] will say: ‘These are baseball players. These are baseball executives. Mind your own business.’ But, really, this is our business. We’re all just human beings trying to do the right thing.”

Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.





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