How to explain oppression and privilege to the average sports fan

What a (mostly) great weekend for sports in Seattle! The Seahawks embarrassed the 49ers; the Huskies soundly crushed the Cougars; and the Sounders beat the Galaxy (only to exit the MLS playoffs, huh?).

Sports made other headlines this weekend too, when a few players from the St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture—a prominent symbol of solidarity around what’s been happening in Ferguson. “Everything about the situation touched me because it could have happened to any of us,” said Jared Cook, St. Louis Tight End. “Any of us are not far from the age of Michael Brown and it happened in our community”

Not everyone was thrilled with this gesture though; particularly the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which condemned the players’ actions. “The SLPOA is calling for the players involved to be disciplined and for the Rams and the NFL to deliver a very public apology.”

This specific example reflects the larger dialogue happening across the country. Regardless of your feelings or perspectives, one thing is clear, there’s a lot of mistrust between law enforcement, government and your average citizen. I believe part of the problem is that everyone is talking about different things. The focal point might be Michael Brown and Ferguson, but everyone is speaking from their personal experiences and frustrations, which vary considerably based on who you are and where you’re from. As I try to better understand the events myself, I realized something: Sports perfectly explains oppression and privilege.

Hear me out…

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Growing up I was a relatively small athlete. I couldn’t even grow facial hair and pretty much failed at puberty. I blame it on Asian genes and a lack of calcium. I was definitely not the biggest player on the field and quite often the smallest. In fact, you might even consider me a pioneer for later athletes like Russell Wilson (5 ft 11 in) and Lionel Messi (5 ft 6 in). You’re welcome!

I made up for my size deficit by working hard, practicing, and developing my skills so that I could be a competitive player. If I couldn’t out muscle my opponent, I’d out class them. When I saw that other guys were way better at juggling a soccer ball, I learned how to juggle too. When I noticed that I couldn’t win most headers in the air, I learned how to tackle hard and low to the ground. I would play for hours until I got better.

I’ve had my fair share of wins and losses (and ties) throughout my career. By and large, the most frustrating games are the ones where it doesn’t feel like you’re playing the other team…but the referees. A game like this might start out great; things seem to be going your way. Then whoa! Out of nowhere the ref makes a bad call. “It’s just one call,” you think to yourself, “everyone makes mistakes.”

Play on. Then boom! You get tackled from behind by an opponent and the ref doesn’t call that either. Later he misses a penalty for your team. And it happens again, and again, and again. You petition the referee to call a fair game, but he doesn’t see anything wrong. And it just gets worse, doesn’t it? When has it ever gotten better? The ref starts throwing flags and cards at your team, even though you didn’t do anything. And obviously, the other team isn’t going to speak up and tell the ref to call a fair game—they are benefiting from these lopsided calls!

So what do you do? No athlete (or fan) is going to sit back and take it. Hell no! You let the referees know they’re making terrible calls. You curse at ’em. You scream at ‘em. You get in their face. And if that doesn’t work, you retaliate on the field—sometimes even off the field. If the ref isn’t going to call the fouls, you may as well break the rules too. Why not tackle a bit harder? Throw an elbow. Slide with your cleats up. Grab a face mask. Whatever! It’s all fair game at this point, right?

These situations, across any sport, are incredibly frustrating because most people walk into a game thinking they only have one opponent to play; that everything else on the field will be fair. Players are told that if they practice and work hard, they will succeed. Winners are the folks who want it more. Most people never expect they would have to play the referees too.

I had this feeling last week during an indoor soccer game. The other team was making some cheap tackles and the ref missed some pretty obvious calls. “Hey ref! You did you see that tackle? Call it fair.” Mind you, this was a co-ed, recreational indoor soccer game—we weren’t playing for a championship trophy. But both teams wanted to win, and neither wanted the referee to get in the way.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?! What did you do? Just sit back and take it? How many times have you screamed at your television because of a poor call? Remember how loud you got? How angry you were? I bet you even wished someone would punch the ref in the face. How many people have felt “robbed” after a game? (Seahawks vs Steelers, Superbowl XL).

***

Now imagine if this was your actual life every.single.day. This is how many minorities a lot of the time. We work really hard to better ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally. We develop our skills and talents through rigorous practice and training, whether by getting a higher education, learning English, or on the job training.

But sometimes, no matter how hard minorities work or how much we prepare…it feels like the game is being called against us; that life is out of our control. It feels like we’re always playing from behind. And it can be a lot of different things that feel unfair, not just one: law enforcement singling out minorities; elected officials targeting immigrants; women being harassed in the work place.

When the game isn’t called fairly, is it so surprising then, at some point, people get fed up and want to protest? People want to scream at the referee and be heard, even retaliate. But in this case, the “referees” aren’t individuals—they are discriminatory laws and practices, rules and regulations that only benefit a small section of the population, and stereotypes and prejudices that devalue the worth and dignity of minorities.

This is what oppression feels like. If we can protest a football game for poor officiating, is it so surprising people want to protest for their civil rights?

And what about “privilege,” this buzzword that you hear minorities use all the time: White privilege, male privilege, economic privilege, etc. Privilege is the team who benefits from bad refereeing. They may not actively tell the ref to call an unfair game, but they sure as hell aren’t making a stink when the calls go their way either. All they have to do is remain silent and let the ref keep messing up.

There’s been a lot of talk around racial discrimination, systematic oppression, biases, and injustice lately. I personally believe the majority of people are well-intentioned and sincerely want to live in a peaceful society where everyone has equal rights and opportunity.

The point is, when the rules don’t work in sports we generally change them to make things fair so that teams can compete based on their merit and talent. This is exactly how social justice works. We want to change to rules so that everyone can succeed (or not) based on their merit and talent too.

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What’s been your experience? Leave a comment below. I’d love to get everyone’s thoughts on this.

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