Mark Reason is a sports columnist for Stuff
OPINION: While Super Rugby was limping into the knockouts with as bad a footy standard as I can remember in the history of the competition, something sad and beautiful, angry and wonderful happened on the other side of the world.
One athlete had the courage to break the silence. One athlete spoke from the heart about things that really matter. An athlete turned his back on the amoral, some would say evil, corporate dollars that silenced a generation. Finally a voice was heard from the wilderness.
If you haven’t seen and heard Steve Kerr’s speech on gun control, I urge you to go there now. It is Shakespeare in that it weaves through so many modulations of emotion. Kerr is the coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, but for three glorious minutes he didn’t give a damn that his team was on the verge of making it to the NBA Finals. He only cared about the suffering of his people.
Kerr said, “I’m not going to talk about basketball … Basketball issues don’t matter.
“Since we stopped shooting, 14 children and a teacher have been killed 400 miles from here. And in the last 10 days we’ve killed elderly black people in a supermarket in Buffalo, we’ve killed Asian churchgoers in Southern California, and now we have children who were murdered at school.
“When do we do what? I’m tired, I’m so tired of standing up here and offering my condolences to the devastated families out there. I’m tired of the moments of silence. Enough.”
Just in this short opening verse, Kerr’s voice cracks. He’s close to tears. He fights for breath to make his words come true. He’s getting angry. He slams his hand lightly on the desk without realizing it.
Kerr continues, “There are currently 50 senators who are refusing to vote on HR 8, which is a background check rule passed by the House of Representatives a few years ago. It has been there for two years. And there’s a reason they won’t vote on it: to stay in power.
“I’m asking you, Mitch McConnell; I ask all senators who refuse to do anything about the violence and the shootings in schools and supermarkets; I ask you: will you put your own desire for power over the lives of our children, our elderly, and our churchgoers? Because that’s what it looks like. We do that every week.”
And I ask you, Google, whose corporate logo was on the NBA board of directors that provided a backdrop to Kerr’s speech, and I ask you, Rakuten, FTX, Clorox, Betway, Henessy, Biofreeze and all the other companies, the Golden State Warriors sponsor: What are you going to do about Kerr’s speech?
Because I’m tired, I’m so tired of companies using their faceless, amoral power to gag the sports world. I’m tired of athletes being denied their right to free speech. I’m sick of this silent winter of sport where men and women are too scared to speak up.
There’s an unspoken reason why horrific bullying is so rampant in New Zealand sport. Because the victims are afraid to speak. That’s because power doesn’t want to hear the truth if it tarnishes the brand. And so the suffering of our young men and women continues. And so the deaths of beautiful young women like Olivia Podmore continue.
I’m sick of the Olympics and pathetic Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which effectively bans political protest. In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic podium, their shoeless state symbolizing black poverty in America. The two brave young men bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved right and left arms in protest.
And where have we come in the 54 years since then? We have come to a place where an Iranian wrestling champion will be executed in 2020 for his anti-state views and the Olympic movement says there is nothing they can do because the execution had nothing to do with a sporting event. Haven’t we learned anything?
Please continue, Mr. Kerr: “Well, I’m fed up. I’ve had enough. We’re going to play the game tonight, but I want every person here, every person listening to this, to think about their own child or grandchild or mother or father or sister or brother – how would you feel , when did this happen to you today?
“We can’t turn a blind eye to it. We can’t sit here and just read about it and say, ‘Well, let’s have a moment of silence, yeah, go Dubs, come on Mavs, let’s go.’ That’s what we’re going to do – we’re going to play a basketball game. And 50 senators in Washington will hold us hostage.
“Are you aware that 90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want background checks, universal background checks? Ninety percent of us. We are being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who are refusing even to vote on it, despite what we, the American people, want. They won’t vote on it because they want to hold on to their own power. It’s pathetic. I’ve had enough.”
We’ve all had enough. We’ve had enough of football journalists having to delete footage from the UEFA Champions League final. We’re tired of them being herded into a room by heavyweights because the authorities don’t want you and I to see images of staff incompetence and police brutality, images of children being tear gassed.
We’ve had enough of brave young men like Kane Hames being silenced after he took to the pitch for the Māori All Blacks in 2016 with a bandage on his left wrist that read ‘Standing Rock’. Hames was protesting a US government plan to build a $3.7 billion pipeline through Native American land in Dakota.
It had been 43 years since Marlon Brando asked Sacheen Littlefeather to turn down the Oscar on his behalf. She said, “The reasons for this are the film industry’s treatment of American Indians … I hope I didn’t interfere tonight, and in the future, love and generosity will meet our hearts and understanding.”
That love and generosity is out there in the hearts of so many of our young people. But it has been gagged by big business and by the Olympics and by Fifa and by the miserable old men of World Rugby who forbid a brave young man like Hames to exercise his right to protest peacefully.
So thank you Steve Kerr for shining a light on the dark world of pro sports where the dollar is more important than the truth. Thank you Steve Kerr for having the courage to stand up for our beliefs and for showing us the way forward.
A few days after Kerr’s speech, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees worked together to educate fans about gun violence during the game via their social media pages. Maybe, just maybe, the sport’s silent winter is finally beginning to thaw.