Fair warning: Things are going to get a little political here (in case the picture above didn't tip you off), so steer clear if you prefer your sports to be 100% escapism.
Five or six years ago, my cousin (a current journalism grad student at Cal) got me two books for Christmas. What's My Name, Fool? and Welcome to the Terrordome, both by Dave Zirin, fundamentally changed me as a sports fan. Prior to that point, sports were pure escapism for me. Reading about the radical activism of Muhammad Ali, the blatant racism and profiteering of the Olympics, and the corruption of FIFA opened my eyes.
We like to view the world of sports as a thing apart, a bubble isolated from 'real' life. But of course sports are big business, played by real people with real opinions, who are impacted by the sometimes unequal world we live in.
This last week has been a turbulent one for my favorite city, the city that I wish I could call home right now. Protests, looting, police violence, and disturbing effigies have roiled campus and city life. The protests are a reality that Cal athletes can't avoid. The day-to-day realities of police mistreatment is something that many athletes have likely had to deal with for most of their lives.
So Cal women's basketball used their platform to speak their mind:
One person's opinion, but the protest shirts the Cal Berkeley women's bball team wore are really powerful. pic.twitter.com/2pmhSTrDAS
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) December 14, 2014
"As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today." pic.twitter.com/2Xy8Vt6tug
— Cal Basketball (@CalWBBall) December 14, 2014
The Cal women's hoops team does "hands up, don't shoot" during national anthem before game with Long Beach State pic.twitter.com/k0foj07YAL
— Mike Guardabascio (@Guardabascio) December 14, 2014
Every single player on the roster had a different name on their shirt, of an African American who had been murdered. By including names of those killed by police and non-police alike, they have drawn a connection between the present and the past, and reminded us that the dark days of Emmitt Till are not entirely in the past. It's a sobering reminder that people of color are still disproportionate victims of violent crime, and disproportionate victims of an unequal justice system.
Coach Gottlieb released the following statement:
I'm a basketball coach, and I'm competitive and winning is important. Our standards at Cal are high, and of course losing this game is disappointing. That said, however, I'm not sure I've ever been more proud of these players or our whole team and staff.
As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today. They want to be part of a solution, and they took the steps that were in their power today.
We can talk about X's and O's all day, but in reality there are bigger life issues and the moral consciousness of our players is something I'm proud of. I don't tell them what to think, but I do encourage them to think.
Earlier this week, the captains came to me and said, as a team, they wanted to wear "I Can't Breathe" shirt next Sunday when we play at home against Louisville. This morning, we got out of shootaround and were quickly met with images from our campus that were disturbing. These images may have been to bring awareness to injustice, or they may have been an act of cruelty; either way, they elicited strong emotions from everyone. The entire team came to me. They were compelled to act. We met for 45 minutes about how to best use our voices. As a group, they decided to wear shirts that brought attention to lives lost - recently and throughout history - and to stand and say that black lives matter; all lives matter.
I wish we had won today. It was a brutal loss, but our players wearing handmade shirts to symbolize something poignant and important is what I will remember proudly from today. I love this team and staff for who they are as people.
Personally, I am humbled that the players spoke out, and in a fashion that I find very intelligent and nuanced. And I'm thankful for a coaching staff that has fostered an atmosphere that has encouraged and allowed these students to speak out like this.
Go Bears, always.