If 2020 was a watershed year for athlete activism, will the momentum continue in ’21?


TORONTO — An athlete with a megaphone, fist raised in furious protest. Teammates kneeling, heads bowed, linked arm-in-arm. Political slogans — “Vote Warnock” — across the chest of warmup shirts. A pair of shoes on a chair, customized with powerful Black Lives Matter images.

Some of the most enduring sports images from 2020 weren’t buzzer-beaters or goal celebrations. They came in the moments away from the game.

History will determine whether 2020 was a watershed year for athlete activism. And whether the momentum will continue in 2021 is still to be written.

Russell Reimer believes the momentum could continue. The founder and CEO of Manifesto Sport Management expects protests at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

“There’s going to be a John Carlos moment in Tokyo 2021,” Reimer said.

Carlos and Tommie Smith, American sprinters, raised black-gloved fists on the 1968 Olympic medal podium, an image revisited in recent months as racial injustice protests raged across the U.S. and abroad.

How would Reimer feel if the Tokyo protester was one of the athletes he represents?

“Incredibly proud. Incredibly proud,” he said. “Here’s the situation, I think one courageous athlete is going to change the entire Olympic movement.”

Athlete activism will be a hot-button topic heading into the Tokyo Games. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees — a major power broker in the Olympic arena — made a bold move last month, announcing they won’t punish athletes for peaceful protests in Tokyo.

Canada has taken a softer stance. The majority of Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes recently surveyed don’t support protests on the field of play, including the podium or opening and closing ceremonies. The COC athletes commission, which was so instrumental in postponing the Olympics amid the COVID-19 pandemic, sent seven recommendations to the IOC on protests, including establishing neutral spaces for that purpose.

“The athlete voice I think is gaining incredible momentum and we’re about to find out if the IOC is going to be like the NBA and listen to its athletes, to be an athlete-led and driven organization, or if it’s going to cling to what I think is an anachronistic rule that belongs in the past, and should have been contemplated and buried shortly after Mexico in 1968,” said Reimer, whose management company represents athletes such as figure skater Tessa Virtue, Toronto Blue Jays infielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner.

The NBA and WNBA led the way in activism this past summer. The WNBA has been instrumental in a tight Georgia Senate race, supporting Reverend Raphael Warnock after Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler scoffed at the league’s human rights messaging.

The race went to a runoff, and Georgians headed to the polls Tuesday. Loeffler’s own Atlanta Dream team made one final push for Warnock on Monday, posting a video message on social media.

“There are moments that make or break us. There are moments that challenge us. And there are moments that make history,” players said in the video. “And this moment chose us.”

Canadian Jamal Murray’s shoes were a striking image last summer, left on a chair during a Zoom media availability for two minutes in the NBA bubble. They bore the images of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two high-profile victims in police killings of Black people.

“I just wanted it to resonate with you guys,” the Denver Nuggets guard told reporters. “How long was that (his sneakers on the chair)? Two minutes? One of the persons on my shoes had a knee on their neck for eight.”

Athletes made their voices heard. Will Canadian sponsors have their backs?

A storyline leading into the Tokyo Games, scheduled to open in just under 200 days, will be whether or not corporate Canada will support social justice messages.

“When you have times of such contrast, you can’t sit on the fence, you’ve got to pick a side,” said Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa, a Toronto native. “That’s where companies have had to decide what side of history we’re going to sit on. And in how they’ve reacted, or not reacted, or what they’ve said or haven’t said, is how I choose or who I choose to partner with as well.”

Achonwa said Glossier’s “Body Heroes of the WNBA” campaign was an example of one company that got it right. The campaign highlighted WNBA players’ lives, routines and perspectives on beauty.

Nike launched a sombre “Don’t Do It” campaign, words on a black screen that began with “For once, don’t do it. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America.”

“I’m afraid there hasn’t really been a lot to be encouraged by in respect to brands in Canada investing in consumer-facing campaigns linking to Black athletes and the fight against systemic racism,” said Brian Levine, founder and president of Envision Sports & Entertainment, a Toronto-based company.

Reimer said what’s required is a “courageous brand.

“The challenge that we have typically in Canada is that we don’t have really bold brand partners here that will do that work.”

Achonwa, who won the WNBA’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award last season, said the work goes beyond talking the talk. It’s great, she said, that individuals and companies posted black squares on their social media profiles in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“But what did you do with that? What more work have you done?” she said. “I love to hear a group say, ‘Black lives matter to us.’ Well, what does your organizational structure look like? How many people on your board are people of colour? Are you putting your money where your mouth is? Are you walking the walk? It’s great to talk to talk, but are you backing it up?”

Wes Hall took a week off as a mental health break after Floyd was killed on May 25. Hall is a Bay Street power broker but also a Black man living in the posh Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale.

“Living in (Rosedale), one example that stuck with me was jogging through the neighborhood, and I saw a white woman fall in front of me, and I hesitated to help her because … white neighbors would see a black man with a white woman, might call the police and white police officer shows up, the next thing you know I’m in handcuffs.”

So Hall and other prominent Canadian business leaders formed the BlackNorth Initiative.

“(We thought) let’s put our business minds together, and come up with a solution to deal with systemic racism,” Hall said.

Hall also feels a lot of companies are paying lip service to the BLM movement. He used an example of the NBA.

“Over 70 per cent of the league is Black, but three per cent of the coaches are Black,” Hall said. ” So, there is a lot of talk out there about, ‘Oh we do agree with Black Lives Matter, and we’re supportive, but their actions are completely contrary to those statements. And we see that in corporate Canada as well.

“That’s why we’re hoping the Black North Initiative, it’s not just a blip in the radar, we’re now holding companies accountable for statements that they make, and making sure that they follow through with those statements. Because it’s easy to do it in the moment. But a year from now, what’s your vision?”

The NBA season, a couple of weeks old, looks different than the Walt Disney bubble. There’s no “Black Lives Matter” painted across the floor. Players aren’t kneeling for the anthem.

Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said it’s important athletes keep up the work on their own.

“It may not say it on the court or it may not say it on the back of the jerseys, but it resonates when you’re doing things in your communities, to uplift your communities and to uplift other people. So that’s a big thing . . . make it matter.”

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press