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Bill Straub: ‘The time for change is now,’ and yes the fine young men of UK are talking about racism

Kentucky has a problem. It’s a problem that devastates the entire nation, for sure, and the Bluegrass is no exception.

It came to the forefront this week when members of the University of Kentucky basketball team, along with coach John Calipari, appeared in a two-minute video pleading with fans and foes alike to join them in opposing the sin of racial injustice. It’s an issue that is finally receiving the attention it deserves and the young men of the BBN, most of them Black, are standing up and being counted.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

“The time for change is now,” the message begins. “We’ve watched for too long now as our mothers, our fathers, our brothers and our sisters, have been profiled and discriminated and even being shot and killed. Victims of police brutality with no justice.”

The message is straightforward, with team members looking into the camera and discussing an issue that should be obvious to everyone. The video contains a recitation of the names of several African-Americans, unarmed, who were shot and killed by police, for the crime of being Black. One, of course, is Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician from Louisville gunned down by police on March 13 when police stormed her home as she slept, exchanging as many as 22 gunshots with her boyfriend, as part of a drug investigation.

It’s a strong statement. In the end, the players ask viewers to join them in standing against injustice – the sort of injustice many of them have personally experienced – and issue the now familiar plea “Black Lives Matter.”

Response to the video, on Twitter and elsewhere, has been interesting to say the least. An overwhelming number wrote in support of the team’s commitment – perhaps a good sign that the Commonwealth and the nation are finally on the road to recognizing the terrible problems that persist. But a not insignificant number essentially told the players to sit down and shut up, that they don’t want to hear about their difficulties.

And then there was old canard, “I wish we could take politics out of sports and just play the game.” Some went so far as to say they would no longer support the team.

It’s about time people grew up.

Some of the more vicious responses had been removed by Wednesday, including one that accused the players of unspecified illegal activities. A few miserable comments remained, like, “Great, when y’all gonna start looting and burning downtown Lexington?”

“No longer will support this violent group and now will no longer support KENTUCKY basketball,’’ one wrote. “Will not retain my season tickets that my family has held since the 70’s.”

Said another, “2020 has given me perspective on just how much time, money, and emotion that sports played in my life. Now, I realize that I really won’t miss any of that from here on. Thanks, coach for weening me from the last sports team I cared anything about.”

“Sickening,’’ was one response. “Adults forcing kids who MAY not agree with the narrative on the spot. Forcing kids on scholarship or part of the program to get on board. Can you imagine if a team mate, trainer, manager, or coach chose not to support the narrative? You’d be looking for a new school.”

Several objected to use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with the rejoinder, “All Lives Matter,’’ as if it were some great discovery. As one person asserted, “ALL Lives Matter!! Black, Hispanic, White, Indian…the list goes on and on. Sure hate to do it but if UK starts with this kneeling to our flag like the NBA has done, we will boycott college ball also.”

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been explained many times. The idea is to pay proper heed to those who have been ignored for centuries. As one noted, if you are in a neighborhood and the lone house owned by an African-American family is on fire, it would be stupid to tell firefighters each residence requires the same attention.

Others objected to the team seemingly aligning itself with the Black Lives Matter Global Network, an organization seeking to move the issues affecting the Black community to the nation’s vanguard. One critic stated, “Wow and just like that my beloved wildcats just ripped my heart out by supporting a Marxist movement! Beyond saddened and heartbroken!I have no words other than just sad! I back the Blue! The Blue that defends you that protects you ! Heartbroken.”

UK Wildcats in video

The team never specifically tied itself to the Global Network, although it certainly associated itself with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” If it had done so, it would have been perfectly understandable. As the organization said in its founding statement:

Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.

We acknowledge, respect, and celebrate differences and commonalities.

We work vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.

We intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.

So what exactly is wrong with that?

And, of course, as noted earlier, there was the ever-popular comment, “Just play ball: stay out of politics-no opinions needed. Disappointed.”

This is not a political issue. This is a human rights issue that, in the 21st Century, everyone should be supportive and cognizant of. If the young men on the University of Kentucky basketball team aren’t standing up for themselves and their families, who in the world is going to do it for them? The issue transcends sports and members of the team are positioned to do something about it by bringing it to the public’s attention.

It’s something to be lauded, not avoided.

Kentucky has a lot to answer for regarding racial justice and now’s a good time to start. Some years back now one of my sons was a member of the Lexington Henry Clay High School football team. It bused down one Friday night to play Corbin in a town with a long and unfortunate history of racial animosity.

Henry Clay featured a lot of African-American players. Corbin had none. The taunts from the crowd started before the coin flip and continued throughout the entirety of the game, hideous and ugly things that never should have been acceptable in society, all directed at a bunch of Black high school kids.

It was an eye-opener. This was not something that occurred in southern Mississippi in 1957. This was the early 2000s. And it pointed out just how little progress had been made.

Any thing that moves the ball forward should be hailed, not criticized. The time is over for burying one’s head in the sand and a bunch of young athletes on the University of Kentucky basketball team are helping show the way.

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