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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem called the team meeting. They had been talking about the killing of Trayvon Martin for a week or so, mulling over what it meant to them as black men, processing it as fathers, trying to formulate a response to it as athletes and role models.
When they decided on a plan, they knew they wanted to stand together, to stand as a team. So they called the rest of their Miami Heat colleagues together and told them what they were thinking of doing. Everybody agreed. Nobody demurred. Nobody worried it would be too controversial, or alienate fans. Nobody wanted to stay in their lane.
So a few hours before a road game in Detroit, James, Wade and Haslem summoned their teammates into the ballroom at the team’s hotel. Most were already wearing their hoodies, though one player had to borrow one from a coach.
“We are Trayvon Martin,” James captioned the photograph they took there, heads bowed and hoods up. The Heat would take the floor that night with calls for justice, and Martin’s name, scrawled on their sneakers. Other players in other cities soon added their support to the campaign.
That was 2012. Two years later, James — by then back with the Cleveland Cavaliers — would warm up for a game wearing a shirt bearing the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” the three words repeated 11 times by Eric Garner as he was choked on a sidewalk by a New York City police officer. His teammate Kyrie Irving and several Brooklyn Nets players did the same. A day later, so did Kobe Bryant.
In between the deaths of Martin and Garner, Adam Silver — two months into his job as the league’s commissioner — had banned Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for life from the sport, after a tape emerged in which Sterling instructed his girlfriend not to bring “black people” to the team’s games.
James had spoken out on that, too. “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” he had said. The website Deadspin regarded that as significant: “If an actor as careful” as James felt the need to be so forthright, it suggested, the case against Sterling must be damning.
James is still careful now, of course, but it is no longer a rarity to hear his voice. Athlete activism has become standard in the N.B.A. For that, of course, the league deserves credit: Silver, in particular, has fostered an environment in which James and his colleagues feel empowered to use their platforms to address injustices and social issues that matter to them. No, scratch that: just injustices and social issues that matter, full stop.
This week, as protests over the death of George Floyd swept across the United States, Silver wrote to the league’s players. “I am heartened by the many members of the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. family — players, coaches, legends, team owners and executives at all levels — speaking out to demand justice, urging peaceful protest and demanding meaningful change,” he wrote.
But it would be a mistake to assume the system has taken the active role here, and the athletes have been merely passive beneficiaries. The change came because the athletes spoke up.
They found their voices through their own agency and of their own accord. They were not granted the right to speak. The league was put in a position where it could resist, or it could let them be heard. The N.B.A. deserves credit, more than anything, for making the right call.
Soccer is not yet so empowered. It is reminiscent, if anything, of the N.B.A. in the days before Hoodies Up and I Can’t Breathe, an era when players were reticent to discuss anything which might be deemed political and there were strict rules governing slogans scrawled on vests and T-shirts and sneakers.
Soccer clubs and leagues and sponsors all stand against racism, of course — they have initiatives and everything — but their objections tend to be faintly vanilla, doubtless sincere but somehow superficial, coded in the language of corporate communications. Their statements are unlikely to be a call to action for what Silver might call “meaningful change,” and those kinds of expressions are surprisingly absent when doing so might reflect negatively on their team or on their fans.
This week, though, something different happened. It was not the decision of FIFA, the game’s governing body, to guide its various members that anti-racist messages did not constitute a political message; not the confirmation that Germany’s soccer authorities would not punish the slew of Bundesliga players — Jadon Sancho, Marcus Thuram, Achraf Hakimi, Weston McKennie — who gave their support, and their profile, to the protests sweeping first the United States and then the world.
No, it was the fact that the players felt empowered enough to make a stand, regardless of whether FIFA or the D.F.B. felt it crossed a line. The fact that Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba added their voices on Twitter, while DeAndre Yedlin and Nedum Onuoha specifically addressed what it is like to be a black man in the United States; the fact that the players of Liverpool, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund all took a knee before training. (At Liverpool, the photo was the idea of Virgil Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum; this was no club-orchestrated stunt).
Once again, this was not the authorities acting and the players following; it was the other way around, and it made it feel like something may be changing.
Players have, in the last couple of years, started to challenge the racism they have to endure simply because they are footballers: Raheem Sterling’s eloquent advocacy on the topic; Romelu Lukaku’s willingness to call out media stereotypes; the readiness of England’s players to walk off during a game in Bulgaria. But this past week’s actions have been another step: a willingness to confront, head on, systemic discrimination outside sports.
It was a sign that players do not believe they need to keep quiet, to avoid controversy, to stay in their lane. It was a sign that they will force the game to change, whether it likes it or not; a sign that they know they have a role to play and they are eager to do it; a sign of a generation, just as the N.B.A. found a decade ago, that has a voice and intends to use it.
Soccer Is a TV Product. But TV Is a Soccer Product, Too.
For the time being, the Premier League has breathing space. This week, the league’s largest broadcast partner — Sky Sports, its primary rights holder in Britain — agreed to wait until next season to collect the $215 million it is owed by England’s top-flight clubs because of the league’s three-month coronavirus hiatus.
It is a gesture that will be gratefully received not only by the Premier League’s teams, facing the prospect of a massive financial shortfall brought about by months of games behind closed doors, but by clubs across Europe, many of whom depend upon English spending in the transfer market to keep their own heads above water.
More than that, though, it sheds light on how symbiotic the relationship is between the Premier League and the network that has carried its games since its inception. The Premier League is often seen as a product shaped and molded by and for television, and Sky in particular. Sky decides when games are played, and its rolling news channel blares out which stories are important. In some sense, it seeks to determine when history itself starts.
But it is too easily forgotten that the converse is also true. Sky’s success is built on the popularity of the Premier League; its decision to wait for payment is proof of that. It is not in Sky’s interests for the Premier League to enter recession. It is not in its interests for the transfer market to seize up, or for next season to look like this season except, or for the glamour and excitement and frenzy to dwindle and drift.
Soccer needs television, of course: that is why the vast majority of Europe’s leagues are playing on. The majority of those countries that canceled just happened, as it goes, purely coincidentally, to have new television deals starting in the summer. But television needs soccer, too, desperately. Without it, the whole model falls apart.
The War Is Won. You Don’t Have to Keep Fighting.
As Major League Soccer has long worried about being taken seriously, it was a bit of a surprise to see it decide that the best way to survive the age of coronavirus was to squirrel its stars away at Disney World for a month or so. On the surface, it’s a little like the time Leeds United decided to let a circus park outside Elland Road.
But, beyond the unfortunate symbolism, there is much to admire about M.L.S.’s plan for completing its season. It has come up with a far more inventive solution than any European league has mustered so far: a condensed tournament, based on the structure of a Champions League or World Cup, played out in Florida.
The N.W.S.L., America’s top women’s league, has had the same idea, on a smaller scale, and it is a good one. Or, rather, it is as good an idea as is available in the circumstances: a blend of necessary brevity, immediate understanding and competitive integrity.
It was surprising, though, to hear Don Garber, the M.L.S. commissioner, justify his league’s decision to come back with comparative urgency — perhaps by the end of this month — by saying that men’s soccer could not afford to wait.
“Unlike the other leagues where fan bases are deeply mature and have been around for generations, our absence from the sports scene made it really crucial for us to get back,” he said this week. You hear this a lot around M.L.S.; in fact, you hear it a lot around soccer in the United States, and I am never quite sure what it means.
M.L.S. has a devoted, substantial fan base, stretching from Portland and Seattle to Atlanta and Miami. Millions across North America watch soccer, whether it is domestic or international, no matter what time of day it is broadcast. Garber’s energy and his humility are admirable, really, but they almost seem to belong to another age.
M.L.S. does not need to worry that its fans are going to disappear, just as soccer does not need to fear that it will never win over the United States. Those particular battles have been won. It’s unfortunate that the victors do not seem to have noticed.
For some unfathomable reason — and in defiance of the very obvious fact that it is an excellent idea — some felt compelled to pick holes in my (may not have been mine) idea to save the F.A. Cup.
Mike McNally wonders what would happen if, as in 2019, “four Premier League teams made the European finals and were also involved in the latter stages of the F.A. Cup.” For his part, James Armstrong suggested there are “too many games at Wembley,” and wondered how the promotion playoffs, particularly from the Championship to the Premier League, would be affected.
All valid questions, of course: I’ve seen “Shark Tank,” so like any self-appointed visionary with a shoddy idea for a product, I know how to answer feedback convincingly. To avoid clashes with European finals and the playoffs, finish the Premier League season a week earlier than normal. To avoid overscheduling at Wembley, play the F.A. Cup semifinals at other stadiums (I’m going to suggest Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and Tottenham). I await offers of investment.
Hank Hodes and John Donohue both asked what was happening to England’s lower tiers. Here’s the answer: the second-tier Championship will start a few days after the Premier League, while the third and fourth tiers have been canceled, and should be decided using a points-per-game formula, like the one used in France and Scotland. As leagues that rely for much of their revenue on gate receipts, though, much more concerning is the question of when they will — or can — realistically start again. It’s a subject we’ll be returning to.
That’s all for this week. Thanks, as always, for the correspondence: please keep on sending ideas, hints, questions and criticisms to [email protected] I’m on Twitter, and for this week’s Set Piece Menu we invited listeners to join us on Zoom: It was a lot of fun, in a week that has not been a lot of fun, I think, for any of us. And please feel free to tell your friends and relatives that signing up for this newsletter might expose them to some flawed opinions, but at least they’re never dangerous and absurd.