NFL, NBA and College Athletes in Tennessee Should Join Fight Against Gun Violence, Racism

Derrick Morgan, former linebacker for Titans

By Mike Freeman
House Republicans in Tennessee on April 6, 2023 attempted to kick out three Democratic lawmakers for breaking House rules after protesting on the floor of the chamber for gun reform. They were successful in expelling two of them: Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are both Black. The one who stayed, Gloria Johnson, is white.

Jaren Jackson of the Memphis

If you want to know what hardcore racism looks like, this is the perfect photograph. It’s not a coincidence the uppity Black members were expelled but the white one was not.

When Johnson was asked why she was spared, she told CNN it was because, “I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.”

The message sent from Republicans to the Black members was simple: Stay in your place. If you do not, you’re gone.

The story has become one of the biggest in the country over the past few days, as it crosses into issues of not just race, but also freedom of expression, and how Black people are still treated with a different sort of harshness than our white counterparts.

Which brings me to these entities: The Memphis Grizzlies, the Tennessee Titans and the Tennessee Volunteer football and basketball teams.
If you’re a player on one of those teams, some of the most powerful forces in the state, and you’re Black, what are you thinking now? You just witnessed two young men, who look like you and are likely proud to be Black like you, treated like criminals because they were fighting to make the state safer from gun violence following a mass shooting. In the aftermath of that, what are you thinking?

Do you just stay quiet? Do you just shut up and dribble? Or do you join the fight?

This isn’t just about race. We need to remember the original reason for the protests was the gun violence, and this is also another way for athletes in Tennessee to use their power. They can fight to make gun laws more sensible. Just days after the mass shooting at Covenant Elementary in Nashville that led to the killing of three children and three adults, Republican lawmakers pushed for more gun access. They pushed a bill that would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school property.

It should also be made clear that these Tennessee athletes can have an impact now, and not just in the future. There’s a remote chance Jones and Pearson could return in a few weeks, and athletes voicing their support for such a move could be invaluable.

There are plenty of athletes who could step forward. The Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson has a strong social justice backbone and has for years. The same with some Titans players who have not been shy talking about social justice issues. After the player protest movement started by Colin Kaepernick, following the NFL donating $90 million to various social justice causes, some of the Titans were highly vocal.

Linebacker Derrick Morgan, who has since retired, called the NFL’s financial pledge “hush money” and questioned the sincerity of the league.
“It was almost like, ‘Here, take this, shut up and stop talking about the issues,’ “ he said in 2019.

He added: “Hey, we’ll take the money, because it’s going to a good cause. So I think the end goal was positive, but I don’t know if the motive was pure. That was my honest reaction.”

Imagine if the Volunteers football and basketball teams protested what happened to the expelled representatives. It would bring even more national attention. It could literally help save democracy.

If you think it’s extreme to say what’s happening in Tennessee is fascism, you’re wrong. 

“I feel like North Korea has more democracy than we do in the state of Tennessee, and it’s terrifying to me that we’re in this march to fascism,” Johnson said during an interview this week with Mother Jones. “And it seems like the Tennessee supermajority is leading the charge.

( Editor’s Note: Both Justin Jones and Justin Pearson have been reinstated by local officials as Tennessee state legislators.)