SYRACUSE, NY — Sports is evolving. No longer are athletes’ affiliations and allegiances limited to the bench or the dugout. Their influence knows no bounds nor borders. What started as a stand alone statement of defiance by the Milwaukee Bucks, protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in their home state, soon permeated across the entire sports landscape.
All three NBA Playoff games were postponed last Wednesday after players voted not to play. Uniformity is not new in the NBA. “Black Lives Matter”, painted in bold block letters, embroiders all four courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. The rallying cry for justice and equality is also featured on the pregame warm-up shirt of every player in the bubble. Their harmony was anticipated. Echoed support in other leagues was not.
Teams in the WNBA, MLB, MLS and NHL all boycotted games in their respective associations, ushering in an era of cross-sport camaraderie we’ve never seen before. Athletes, who previously never had a reason to talk to one another, are more connected now than ever. Superstar brands with sweeping social media clout dismantle archaic walls dividing basketball, baseball, football and hockey. Their words carry weight. Especially with college athletes.
It’s not unreasonable to wonder if we’ll see teams boycotting games during the 2020 college football season. It’s being talked about by players and coaches as we speak. It’s also not unreasonable to wonder if Syracuse will be the one to lead the way, much like the Bucks led the way last week. Orange players have already shown their readiness to refuse participation this offseason. Questions surrounding the frequency of COVID-19 testing both in-house and conference-wide sparked multiple sit-outs during training camp. The leadership displayed by those players helped leverage real and immediate change.
"We remain committed to doing everything we can to ensure our student-athletes are and feel safe,” Syracuse Athletic Director John Wildhack said in response to the halts in practice. "For football, this includes a robust testing effort which includes weekly testing during training camp and testing three times a week during their playing schedule, beginning the week of Sept.7.”
Syracuse’s amendment to testing regularity would later serve as a model for the rest of the ACC, a much needed measure that can be credited to the players clad in orange and blue.
Having seen first hand what civil noncompliance can accomplish, why wouldn’t the Orange be among the first to boycott games in 2020? When faced with the prospect of a potential boycott, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers thought better than to speak for his players.
"I don't have an answer for that one,” Babers said. "I wouldn't know how to start it or how to finish it. I think that's something you probably need to ask the young men about.”
Babers said he and his team had conversations about the Blake shooting on the field the day that it happened. That talk led into more meetings where players were able to speak their minds and ask questions in a sort of “State of the Union” type atmosphere. This is the second time in the same offseason that Babers has had to address the topic of police brutality with his team, having already commented on the death of George Floyd. Babers said that having his players in face-to-face proximity enabled a more prompt and efficient discourse.
"The big difference between the first one and the second one, to me, was that my players were here, Babers said. "Where I could touch them, I could see them. They're right there in front of me. So obviously we addressed it right away.”
In a normal year, Babers would tell you he isn’t paying attention to anything other than college football. Especially with the season set to kickoff in twelve days. But 2020 hasn’t been normal, and Babers took notice when professional athletes decided to boycott games.
"I think obviously it's a strong stance,” Babers said. "I thought what was more impressive was how it branched across to all the other sports. I mean, that's the thing that was extremely impressive. How they all locked in as professionals. I thought that was a really cool.”
Babers respects the NBA boycott. Should his players decide to embark down a similar path, he will support and respect that decision. But boycotting games likely doesn’t crack Babers' top ten things to worry about. Instead, he’s preoccupies himself with health and well-being of young and impressionable men.
"Every day there’s, you know… you feel like the fire over there in California,” Babers said, equating the chaos of COVD-19 and police brutality to a raging wildfire.
"Every day there's something else popping up that you've got you've got to put out. But I really think that one of the things that we need to really be concerned about is the mental health issue that's going on with the young people today. A lot of those things that they're dealing with that you really wish that they didn't have to deal with at that age, that really you would hope the older generation would have took care of some of those ills. But, you know, it's it's one of those times where there's there's a lot of pain. And where there's a lot of pain, there's normally a lot of growth as well once it's all over."