It can motivate, instigate or manipulate. It can be friend or foe.
Throughout history, America has clung proudly to her fears.
And Wednesday night, Americans across the nation watched the divergent ways fear compels citizens to act.
Trump wants you to feel only he can keep you safe. Nothing new here. He is not the first politician — Republican or Democrat — to use fear as a motivator. Trump knows it works.
While Trump was doing the most to scare up votes, a different scene was playing out in American sports. Elite athletes pride themselves on their ability to play with “no fear.” It’s a longstanding mantra that sounds nice — but until last night I’ve always seen this catchphrase as hollow. Athletes, Black athletes in particular, so often stay afraid. Scared of failing, losing, getting injured, losing scholarships or sponsorships.
But like many of us, the most successful among them learn to embrace fear and use it to inspire them to greatness.
For me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen athletes stand up, so collectively unafraid in their own powerful bodies, to be strong for the nation, unencumbered by the limitations of fame. Rivers said it best when he talked about how fear has motivated him and others to join the calls for justice.
“We keep loving this country and this country does not love us back,” Rivers said.
This boycott, however it unfolds as some players decide to return and others not, is powerful. But it is not the first time superstar athletes at this level have boycotted a big-money sporting event to protest racism and inequality. That honor goes to Venus and Serena Williams.
Those sisters have always recognized the power of their platform to lead conversations about justice and equality. Unlike many of their peers in other sports, the Williams sisters have not been hesitant to speak up for equality.
Venus and Serena are a tough act to follow. Still, the current sports boycott is impressive, and necessary.
It remains to be seen how long it will last, or, if athletes will be able to galvanize their power to compel changes in their own sports and prompt team owners, sponsors and others to more actively work toward fighting for social justice in America.
For many, tension in sports has been festering since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem four years ago in protest of police killings of countless unarmed Black citizens. It was there when Laker great LeBron James tweeted or spoke after a game about the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake — and the deaths of so many other men, women and children who have been unjustly killed.
After Trayvon, athletes were donning hoodies like the one Martin was wearing the night he was killed. Athletes began more and more to join the public outcry and calls for justice for the growing number of unarmed Black people being killed in the US.
No small thing, considering just 10 or 15 years earlier, things were way different. Pro athletes — with few exceptions — roundly refused to speak about anything other than the game, or the fame that came along with it.
Working in sports since the mid-1990s, I recall how frustrating it felt to have my questions shut down with an “I don’t do politics” comment on the smallest issues. Back then most athletes, no matter how famous, feared talking about social justice issues even when it applied to sports. Asked if they’d like to see more Black coaches hired, more Black quarterbacks on the field, or Black front-office executives running things, the answer was always the same: “No comment.”
Unfortunately, the great Michael Jordan had cemented the golden rule for sports superstars — stick to sports, winning championships and cashing big checks. Nothing else matters.
When MJ famously said in 1990, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” everyone listened.
I don’t remember many laughing at this “joke.” I certainly didn’t — and I watched back then as his comment became sports gospel.
Luckily, the Williams sisters and many of the Black athletes speaking out today came along and shattered the MJ rule of silence.
Those courageous, compassionate voices made this sports boycott happen, proving that greatness is not only defined by your bank account or championship rings. They made America stop, really stop, and hear their message. Perhaps more than they realize, those athletes have inspired hope for many living in a nation gripped by fear.
And I, for one, am grateful.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the basketball team for which Doc Rivers is head coach. It is the Los Angeles Clippers.