Why this matters
A year ago, Kenneth L. Shropshire and William C. Rhoden hosted the first episode of the Global Sport Matters podcast, in which they asked each other and guests about their predictions on the impact the COVID-19 pandemic could have on sport. In this episode they revisit the conversation in retrospect, discussing what they got right and wrong, what they have learned, and their hopes for a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic highlighted and exacerbated inequities among race, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racial violence elevated the pervasiveness of systemic racism in our daily lives and institutions. Not only did these crises intersect, but they were also incredibly prevalent in sport.
William C. Rhoden says he realized the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic when he learned that the NBA had shut down. As stadiums became empty and people debated over vaccines and masks, he reflects, “We had no idea how politicized it would become.”
“It is so much more now the case that sports are out front. It’s in a way that I always said we shouldn’t expect to happen and then here it is happening.” - Kenneth L. Shropshire
The politicization of the pandemic coincided with that of racial injustice. People protested, signed petitions, and called for anti-racist policy and legislation. Athletes at all levels were engaged in the movement, sparking a new wave of athlete activism. The WNBA was a prominent leader in the movement as their advocacy for Black Lives Matter and campaigning in Georgia presidential and senatorial races set an example for other leagues. In regards to how sport affected social justice movements, Shropshire says, “It is so much more now the case that sports are out front. It’s in a way that I always said we shouldn’t expect to happen and then here it is happening.”
This activism has been so influential, and it can’t slow down. For instance, in the face of voter suppression bills, Rhoden emphasizes, “At least in the near future, I think there will be this pressure on social justice because the injustice isn’t going to stop.” He also notes that he is hopeful for younger generations of athletes who have shown a commitment to maintaining the momentum of athlete activism.
“I think the NCAA knows that the jig is up.” - William C. Rhoden
Another issue that emerged in sport during 2020 was the name, image, and likeness (NIL) debate. While NCAA policies have disempowered college athletes from speaking out and profiting from their NIL, Rhoden says, “I think the NCAA knows that the jig is up.” Shropshire states that impending Supreme Court decisions and the development of G-league teams will affect college athlete rights moving forward, but that “There needs to be a whole new model, a whole rethinking to make sure these young people are taken care of.”
If there’s any way to summarize the last year, it’s that we are due for a massive rethinking and re-imagination of sport and society. Yet while there is so much work to be done, there are still reasons for hopeful. Rhoden and Shropshire point out that history tends to repeat itself and the “roaring 20s” did follow the 1918 pandemic. In the meantime, Rhoden says, “Let’s continue to care for each other and realize that we really need each other.”
You can find a full transcript of this episode here.
For many, it’s been approximately a year in the life of a pandemic. We’ve seen tragedy, resilience, growing gaps of opportunity and opportunities for growth, juxtaposed in communities across the globe. The world of sport was not immune.
From a pause in play, to a push for more progressive racial justice, to unanswered questions about the long-lasting impacts of COVID-19 that still linger in the air - what do we wish we knew then, that we know now?