HALLANDALE BEACH, AUGUST 29, 2020—Don’t know what created this musical earwig, but it came to mind as I exited the Gulfstream Park parking lot Saturday:
“Can you give me sanctuary?
I must find a place to hide, a place for me to hide
Can you find me soft asylum?
I can’t make it anymore
The Man is at the door” —Jim Morrison
On Wednesday morning I opened my Twitter feed and awakened to this reaction to the protestors chanting outside Churchill Downs, and the query from Andrea:
“Fuck who’s Derby? What’s the Derby got to do with BLM, Taylor, or anything else? Someone explain this to me like I’m 7. What am I missing here?” she asked.
I am active on Twitter about 30 minutes a day; half the time on Racing Twitter, the remainder making social commentary. I consider it the patriotic duty of every American who purports to support the democratic republic the founders envisioned. My response to Andrea:
“Their grievance is Breonna Taylor’s murder did not result in charges vs police who broke into her home. That community believes 2020 Derby should have been canceled out of respect. Has nothing to do with Derby; maybe they know CDI huge Mitch donor—see it more anti-govt. than anti-racing.”
Andrea responded immediately: “I didn’t know her murder took place in Louisville until this morning. Makes total sense now. Now I understand.”
I subsequently thanked her for being a reasonable person, rare in these divided states.
Indeed, some are late to the party, but they’re getting there. But the great Doc Rivers wasn’t late, nor were the Milwaukee Bucks, the first major sports team to protest the Kenosha, WI police shooting of yet another black man in the back–nearly four years to the day Colin Kaepernick’s knee inspired a movement.
The league followed, canceling that night’s round of playoff games; Kenny Smith of NBA on TNT walked off the set “in solidarity…”
Then came news of the WNBA, who really started it all, and one by one Major League Baseball teams began showing support for the ideal that all men and women are created equal in God’s eyes.
That night, as I was preparing to relax by the VCR and watch the season finale of Yellowstone, the Twitter ding sounded on my phone. It was from David B. who asked:
“You boycotting the Derby, John? Not watching, or wager on it? Just curious.” I am not a fisherman, but I recognize bait when I see it. I never met David, nor do I know who he is. I responded:
“I don’t see how boycotting one horse race has any bearing on correcting what’s wrong in this country. Only elections can fix that.”
“The problems in our country go far beyond Donald Trump…but that would be a good first step,” replied David.
It would be a first step on the long, dangerous road back from autocracy to democracy, which dates back to 1776, then 1865 and 1920 and 1947 and 1963-64. Finally, by law, all men and women by law were free and equal. In principle, yes; in practice, still not even close.
Nobody is born a racist, it is learned behavior taught at an early age in a society that has been comfortable with white privilege for 400 years.
Amidst what begins with the first amendment right of peaceful assembly, a global pandemic, escalating weather events, culture wars and a dissembling of America’s democratic institutions, “America’s Race” ranks up there with fireworks on the 4th of July: Essential Americana.
In the city of Louisville, protesters, including Pastor Timothy Findley Jr., leader of the Justice and Freedom Coalition, have called for Derby-146 to be cancelled out of respect for a 26-year-old African-American medical technician who was murdered in her home by Louisville police executing a no-knock warrant on March 13.
No one has been charged in her death. When police broke through the door in the middle of the night, the first shot was fired by Taylor’s current boyfriend who believed their apartment was being broken into. There has been very little transparency since, whistleblowing from inside sources notwithstanding.
The day before the Tweet, protesters marched through Louisville, at one point gathering outside the main gate of Churchill Downs, hanging a sign that read “Justice for Breonna Taylor,” directing chants toward the track and telling those inside how they felt about this year’s iconic horse race.
A Brief History of Black Protest in Sports
The notion that sports and the people who play them, or work in those industries, should be above the fray, is nonsense. Change is a painful process.
Americans believe in their right to be entertained. Athletes, particularly those of color, are American-made millionaires and indentured servitude is the price one must pay, as if those who hire them don’t profit from the fannies they put in seats and the ability to command extravagant rights’ fees.
Protest in sports is nothing brand new, first given notice in another era but when the country was in upheavel 52 years ago. A Black Power salute on an Olympic podium resulting in Tommie Smith and John Carlos being blackballed for life.
Craig Hodges, whose two years of 3-pointers (87-for-181; 36-96) helped produce two NBA titles from 1990-92 and a visit to the Raegan White House where he chose to wear a dashiki, ultimately leading to his being waived by the Chicago Bulls.
Even though the Bulls offered to pay for half of his remaining contract, there were no takers. Four years ago, Kaepernick got the same treatment. The stories of these athletes are cautionary tales.
“To whom much is given much is required,” Hodges said in an interview. “I can’t tell you what to do with your bread, but those who have it are often times the least who speak about the issues because they don’t want to lose their bread, and that’s the sacrifice involved in the mission.”
“Shut Up and Dribble”
Be seen, not heard. Be like Mike and say nothing, even though you could do no wrong and say whatever you wish as the greatest b-baller who ever lived because, remember, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
“The Jordan Rules” state that only after celebrity status is earned can social criticism be tolerated:
Bill Russell’s 11 championships allowed him to become the NBA’s first black head coach, or allowed outspoken Charles Barkley, an OG Dream Teamer, the courtesy of a wink and a nod, or recognition of Lebron James as only-first-name-needed NBA royalty.
Even Allen Iverson, a tattoed celebrity star from the hood, was tolerated when for a brief time he was allowed to turn the NBA into the Hip-Hop Streetball League.
Essentially all sports stopped in March, but racing went on unabaited in Florida, Southern California and Arkansas. NBC, which owns the rights to Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup but desperate for live sports programming, partnered with horse racing network TVG and the sport made the most of it. Subsequently, Saratoga Live programming raised it another notch.
Suddenly, racing’s hosts and analysts began translating racing jargon into English to such a degree that racing has made some new inroads. Horsemen began to explain the realities and rules of equine racing life to a lay audience.
Lamentably, all this took was a worldwide pandemic.
In late spring and summer, other tracks opened for racing. Some stopped when the virus, encouraged to spread due to the lack of a cohesive national policy, spiked once gain. Jockey travel bans were instituted. A national sport has become even more regionalized in the interests of safety for all.
On balance, horse racing has done an excellent job trying to contain the plague. The sport lends itself well to social distancing and mask enforcement mandates, able to continue without the concerns that contact-sports endure.
Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen are two of my favorite horsemen and it is difficult to find many owners who are as genuine of Jack Knowlton.
But I’m not supporting the running of Derby-146 for them, or for the other trainers or owners. I’m doing it for the backstretch workers and their families without other means to support their familes.
Mostly, though, I’m supporting Saturday ‘s Run for the Roses because of Tiz the Law, my newest favorite equine athlete. He’s “one of the ones” I’ve been seeking out since I first started going to the races over a half-century ago.
Tiz the Law is an innocent in all this, a horse worthy of an opportunity to demonstrate that a successful conclusion of his three year old season, which has a long way to go still, can deliver Thoroughbred immortality in a sport where history matters.