The history of sports and matters of race in America have been tied together from the beginning.
Our latest demonstration of that fact is still smoldering all around us.
The killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville have spurred uprisings and protests across the country against police brutality and structural racism.
There are a number of athletes right in the middle, lending their voices and their bodies to those protests.
Businesses have stood up as well.
EA Sports delayed the release of the latest edition of its Madden football game in support of Black Americans.
More companies, and sports franchises, have said and/or done something. Many have not.
Since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, the American public has increasingly paid attention to the political leanings and actions of sports figures and institutions.
Sides are chosen. True feelings are exposed.
Members of the New Orleans Pelicans have made their feelings known both in words and action. However, up until Monday afternoon, not a word had come from Airline Drive.
Then it arrived.
Gayle Benson released a statement that in its entirety of more than 650 words failed to use “racism” even once.
Yes, the owner of the Pelicans and New Orleans Saints went out of her way to pat herself on the back for supporting the public defender’s office, and programs that help women returning from prison. Unfortunately, neither of those have anything to do with police brutality or institutional racism.
While Gayle Benson touts the donation of Benson Tower space to a non-profit program, let’s not forget that the state of Louisiana essentially gave Benson the building in the first place and pays rental rates in the building that far surpass the average for the area.
She did also mention that she, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis, along with Pelicans Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick, were forming a “Social Justice Leadership Coalition,” that will “advocate for issues of change when and where we are able to in black and brown communities.”
Hopefully, this committee will be more successful than her “diversity and inclusion” efforts have been with the Saints.
Of the team’s top seven executives, not one is black. There are very few people of color in any decision-making position on the football side of the facility.
Twice, I have personally called out Mrs. Benson for what I view as slow and inadequate responses by someone who is the wealthiest person in the state, one of the most powerful women in business, and the recipient of a significant amount of taxpayer dollars.
Her integrity has been called into question before when it concerns racial discrimination.
In 2016 she was sued by Rodney Henry, a former personal assistant to Tom Benson for 25 years. Mr. Henry alleged that he had been subject to harassment from Mrs. Benson on a number of occasions.
The case was settled for nearly $400K without any award for the alleged harassment.
It remains to be seen if, as her statement reads, this truly “is not about making statements to appease people.”
Leadership to make the type of change that she says she supports requires sacrifice and hard truths being spoken and understood.
Gayle Benson is nobody’s fool. She knows exactly what type of power she wields.
How will she use it now? Will she throw a few pennies at a problem that can’t be solved with money, or to be a difference maker by walking into the seats of power that she has access to and using her voice to actually fix an American problem, not a black and brown one.
It’s hard to look at the leadership of the Pelicans, with one of the most diverse front offices in sports, and not want to give Benson the benefit of the doubt.
I certainly want to. I want to see the people who can affect change in a positive way do just that.
But this is too important, too dangerous a time to give anyone the benefit of the doubt who says they’re ready to join the fight.
We have to hold each other accountable. We will hold the Pelicans and Saints organizations accountable as well.
There’s no more time to “stick to sports.” The game has much higher stakes now.