TORONTO — As a black baseball player in 1960s America, Fergie Jenkins was often banned from the hotels of his white teammates. There were cities in which he couldn’t dine alongside them in the same restaurant.
The 77-year-old Jenkins has watched the jarring scenes of racial unrest play out this past week in the U.S., and the images are achingly familiar.
“I’ve seen it first-hand,” Jenkins said from his home in Frisco, Texas. ”Now 50 years later, we’re still doing it.”
Jenkins, whose lineage on his mom’s side can be traced back to the Underground Railroad to Ontario, was Canada’s first — and for a long time only — player in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He played 19 seasons with six teams in the majors, but said his time in the minors in the southern cities of Macon, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., were the most difficult.
Racial segregation, he said, “was just a part of growing up.”
“When the (Civil Rights Act) was passed in ‘64, a lot of things changed. And then Martin Luther King (Jr.) came on the scene and they got even better. But then, it really didn’t get better,” Jenkins said with a dry laugh.
From the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to the outspoken voice of basketball star LeBron James — which prompted Fox broadcaster Laura Ingraham’s infamous retort of ”shut up and dribble” — sport has been a medium for athlete protest.
Since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man killed when a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck, there’s been a surge of sports figures speaking out. The recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, a black woman killed during a midnight “no-knock” raid on her home, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased down by a white father and son while jogging in his neighbourhood, have ripped the scab off a long history of brutality.
“Every (death), you’re telling us as black people or a person who isn’t white, ‘Your life doesn’t matter. We don’t see your humanity,’” said Canadian basketball player Kayla Alexander, a forward for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx. ”It’s so exhausting, especially emotionally.”
When Richie Laryea, a crafty fullback for Toronto FC, started college at the University of Akron, his mom Cynthia would check in on him daily. Laryea thought it was sweet.
“Literally, I don’t know if I can recall a night that I didn’t get a call from her or I wasn’t getting a text from my dad just asking if I was home and everything was OK,” Laryea said.
Cynthia Laryea worried even more when her son was drafted by Orlando City SC. She knew his Florida home was a short drive from where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator in 2012.
“I didn’t fully grasp what was happening, but now that I’ve grown up a little bit more I see like wow, my mom was calling me every night not because she was being annoying, but because she was literally scared for me, scared for anything I was doing,” Laryea said.
While the 25-year-old said, “Canada is not perfect,” he feels fortunate to have grown up in Toronto. He played on youth teams that reflected the rich diversity of the city.
But he watched a video recently of young black kids schooled on how to deal with police. He thought about his one-year-old son Elijah.
“I’ve thought a lot about this lately,” Laryea said. “(The video) made me really sad, because now I have a son and it’s like, wow, I’m going to have to have these very difficult conversations with him.
“I’m going to have to speak very strongly to him. He’s going to have to listen. I’m sure it’s going to be tough and he’s not going to get why I’m speaking to him about this, but it’s definitely a conversation that needs to be had.”
Toronto sprinter Aaron Brown was driving home to Winter Garden, Fla., just west of downtown Orlando, after Thursday night’s practice and couldn’t help but notice a soccer stadium parking lot with police cars packed in like sardines — a precursor to the evening’s protests in one of many cities in the U.S. ravaged by racial unrest.
“I’ve never seen so many cops in one place,” said Brown, the 2018 Commonwealth Games silver medallist in the 200 metres. ”Police brutality and stuff like that, you really feel for the people who have had to endure this for so long, because it’s a generational thing, it’s been passed down from their ancestors.”
The 28-year-old believes in the power of sport. Athletes’ voices can be virtual megaphones.
“You see athletes like LeBron James, (former NBA player and Floyd’s friend) Stephen Jackson and all the other NBA players and NFL players who’ve said things, and that’s because they are looked at as leaders in the community, because black culture is largely associated with sports,” Brown said.
“And so if you start to infuse racial injustice and racial awareness with sport, that can lead to arming and making aware an entire population of people who otherwise might not have been aware of what’s going on and what they can do to help make the situation better.”
Brown pointed out athletes are encouraging people to vote. They’re educating allies on how they can support, and they’re posting links and suggestions to what causes people might donate.
“That’s really powerful … because sport starts to transcend just being about entertainment, it starts being about social awareness and empowering a community,” Brown said.
Perdita Felicien warned however that sport can create a facade “that everything is fine.”
Athletes and teams use analogies: On the field we’re all the same. We go to battle for each other. We work together as a team.
“Great,” she said. “But the truth is, it’s this false comfort for a lot of us, because when you leave that arena, that track, that Olympic stadium, it’s not equal. These athletes have to go out into the real world. These athletes are still facing these problems and issues.”
The idea of sport bridging a gap is a “feel-good notion, but I think we need to really dismantle that now. Because it causes people to not take action. It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m not racist,’ you have to be actively not racist. It’s not enough to say that, ‘I don’t see colour.’ Or, ‘my teammate is my teammate,’ ‘my friend is my friend.’ That is actually not enough. Because if you don’t see colour you don’t see me.”
“It’s not enough to say sport bridges. Not if we’re not actively doing the work once we leave the field of play.”
The 2003 world hurdles champion said celebrity can insulate athletes. She remembers a trip to the Mississauga, Ont., passport office and the white woman behind the counter pinching her dog-eared document, well-worn from her global travels, between thumb and finger with disgust.
“And she’s going in on me about the state of my passport, like I can’t possibly be Canadian enough, that I can’t appreciate or respect Canadian-ness. That stung,” said Felicien. ”And then she opens it, and recognizes my name. And her complete disposition changed. ’Oh, you’re Perdita!’”
It’s not enough to listen to Beyonce or cheer for LeBron.
“It’s how do you think and feel about the black person who you know, doesn’t have that level of celebrity or that level of class? What do you say about them? That’s the true racism. So you might love Oprah and love Beyonce. But what is it that you’re saying about the black woman that you see in the store?
Felicien, who was refused service in a restaurant during a trip to Iceland after the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, where she worked as a broadcaster, said it’s those nagging microaggressions like the passport office that eat away at her.
“Everyone’s experiences are so nuanced and so different,” she said. “But it’s racism.”
Longtime Ontario basketball coach Kenold Knight knows the feeling.
“I’m a black coach and I know referees that will allow the white coach to yell and berate them, screaming and cussing at the top of their lungs, and as soon as I say one word, it’s like, technical right away,” said Knight, a former McMaster Marauders assistant, and longtime mentor to Oklahoma City guard Shae Gilgeous-Alexander.
“One time I just threw my hands up and turned towards my bench, and I got the technical. It’s the little things that might be easy to miss if you’re not in my shoes.”
Alexander urged people to use their voices.
“I don’t care who you are — athlete, lawyer, teacher, mom, sister — we all have a platform. And we all have the obligation to use our voice and to start speaking up when we see something that’s wrong,” said the 29-year-old from Milton, Ont. ”Because when we let the people in our circle go unchecked… if we allow people to go on thinking the way that they do and not correct and educate them, they’re going to go out into the world and keep spreading misinformation and ignorance.
“When we step up and start educating people, that spreads.”
Chris Egi, a former Harvard basketball captain from Markham, Ont., founded No More Names, a platform to elevate the voices of student athletes. He’s seen it explode from 30 athletes last weekend to a “hectic 2,600,” including everyone from Penn State football players to Cal-Berkeley swimmers.
“It is cool to see all these people come together and some of the conversations I’ve had in the past week are really powerful. People are sharing really personal stories, one person sharing how they were the only black athlete on their team, and having a type of community made them feel better,” Egi said. ”Someone else said, ‘I wish this existed in my freshman year.’”
Egi was selected out of more than 100 applicants to speak at Harvard’s convocation in 2018. He talked about Michael Brown, who was killed when Egi had just started his freshman season. Brown’s death stuck with the Canadian, and partly framed his college experience.
Egi is cautiously optimistic.
“This feels different…. A lot of people who honestly I never would have expected to reach out have been reaching out,” he said. “I feel like there has been a change.”
He mentioned the charging of officers in Floyd’s death, and the Taylor case reopened.
“We’re seeing some of these things happen with the pressure, and a unified front, too, that I don’t think I’ve really seen with respect to this before. But will this energy sustain? I’m hopeful. But cautiously hopeful.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press