By Mark F. Gray
AFRO Staff Writer

A rise in aggressive social activism from current and former pro athletes has added volume to the calls for reforms to the justice system around the country. Their unexpected impact has given more visibility to fatal interactions between African Americans and law enforcement- an unexpected turn after some athletes took heat and lost their jobs due to their outspoken activism.

ESPN’s national columnist and essay writer Robert “Scoop” Jackson’s new book The Game Is Not a Game: The Power, Protest and Politics of American Sports looks at this sudden massive influence, which may have been a surprise to most outside the world of baskets and touchdowns.  Jackson, whose career has been marked by the poignant commentary blending sports and hip hop culture, began noticing what was brewing beneath the surface in 2016 when he started putting his virtual pen to pad to bring this book to life.

“When my role changed at ESPN I kind of saw this coming,” Jackson said in an exclusive interview on the Gray Area podcast for the AFRO.  “There were pillars in this.  LeBron and Chris Paul stepped forward, but when Steph Curry and Carmelo Anthony stepped into the ring it changed the game.”

Jackson’s transition from national columnist for the sports network’s website offered him more creative space to take a deeper dive into how the most visible athletes are becoming activists for social change by using the leverage of their wealth and their brands.  He was able to take concepts and ideas that would have been columns and feature stories and turn them into well researched investigative chapters to comprise this book. This angle was ahead of the curve as the synergy between athletes and social causes has exploded since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Steph was the kid from the south who was in a safe space until he went all in on President Trump,” Jackson said.  “That gave many athletes a chance to feel like it was okay to share their views.  When Carmelo showed up in Baltimore wearing a fedora and a Cassius Clay hoodie I was like this is extra.  Then when he showed up at his ESPN cover shoot you knew he was all in.”

Jackson also points out how the impact of the social demonstrations on their platforms became opportunities to push for change.  Carefully scripted defiance by athletes has brought conversations on various platforms reaching from the sidelines, into locker rooms and to broadcast studios as well.  “I saw two pillars of situations that encompassed what was going on,” Jackson said.  “When you start seeing how they were falling into place, you start realizing athletes have a way of influencing progress moving forward that doesn’t happen too often.”

Strong stances and eloquent presentation of the athletes’ views even motivated White coaches, such as Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, to add their voices to the effort.

“The fact that Popovich and Kerr were so outspoken gave the players a third pillar, which created a tripod or a stronger platform to stand on, so I felt something was brewing. That just made it stronger in my mind.”