George Floyd Changed The World of Athlete ActivismRoundup
tags: African American history, Black lives matter, Sports History, Protest
Carl Suddler is assistant professor of history at Emory University and author of Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York.
“Daddy changed the world.”
One week after George Floyd was killed by the now fired and convicted Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Gianna “Gigi” Floyd’s four-word, five-second declaration went viral. One year later, in many ways her prophetic statement holds true — her father did change the world.
The police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, sparked the largest protest movement in U.S. history. An estimated 15 million to 26 million people participated in protests in all 50 states and on every continent except Antarctica amid the global covid-19 pandemic.
However, one of Floyd’s most lasting legacies may well be his impact on the sports world. As a former athlete, his life story, which had a special meaning for a generation of athletes, underscored the fine line separating athletic heroes and victims of police violence. His death cemented a new generation of athletes as activists against police violence and professional sports leagues, at minimum, as performative allies. The history of athlete activism reminds us that this movement is one of radical possibility.
Floyd was a two-sport athlete in Houston’s 3rd Ward, a historically Black district. Like many Black youths, Floyd started playing organized sports in his preteen years. Then, he played basketball and football at Jack Yates High School before he graduated in 1993 and earned a college scholarship to play basketball for two years at South Florida Community College (now South Florida State College).
“George was idolized by young boys living in the projects because he was the first guy that many of us witnessed get an athletic scholarship where we grew up,” Eddy Barlow told Jerry Bembry of ESPN’s “The Undefeated.” For Barlow, Floyd was a role model who capitalized on the opportunities that sports presented to attain what many never do — a chance to keep playing into adulthood.
For many athletes, life after sports is a challenge, and Floyd was no exception. Over the course of the 20th century, a small number of athletes have attained sufficient status to demand full citizenship beyond their playing days. But most face the reality of what Harry Edwards described in the 1969 “Revolt of the Black Athlete.” “The Black athlete simply falls by the wayside or takes his press clippings, trophies, awards, and his four years of irrelevant education and looks for any job he can find.”
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