Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism

June 19, 2024
Today’s Juneteenth — a U.S. holiday celebrating Black history and commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the States. But the landmark day only became a U.S. federal holiday in 2021, following a summer of protests against racial injustice in 2020.
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Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism
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❓What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth celebrates June 19th, 1865 — the date that federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that all enslaved people were officially free under the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been signed by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier.

  • The holiday has long been celebrated in the Black community with public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, music, cookouts, and more.

Though many have advocated for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday since the mid-1990s, it only officially earned that status in June 2021. The movement to make it a federal holiday gained steam following a global reckoning on racism in 2020.

  • That May, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers inspired Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the globe.
  • And those efforts extended into sports — players kneeled, marched, and led the way through a summer that forever changed the world.

💪 Women’s sports taking charge

Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism
Source: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but the WNBA was at the forefront of change and activism throughout 2020.

  • When the W’s 2020 season inside the Bradenton, Florida–based “Wubble” started in July, the league came together to dedicate the season to Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman who was killed by police inside her own home in March 2020.
  • Players observed a 26-second moment of silence prior to the first game tipping off, wore Taylor’s name across their backs all season long, and continually uplifted the #SayHerName campaign, raising awareness for Black women lost to police violence.

The NWSL also led the charge in activism as the first U.S. pro league to resume play following pandemic-induced shutdowns. The show of solidarity was led by the players, who worked with the league to arrange warmup t-shirts and in-stadium banners supporting the BLM movement.

🚫 The wildcat strikes

Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism
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The groundswell of momentum culminated on August 26, 2020, when athletes in the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS conducted wildcat strikes following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

  • It all began with the Milwaukee Bucks, who are based around 40 miles from Kenosha. The Bucks were preparing for a first-round playoff game vs. the Orlando Magic, but they boycotted the contest, inspiring athletes in other leagues to do the same.
  • The NBA ultimately postponed all games for the day, and athletes in the WNBA, MLB, and MLS followed suit. In tennis, Naomi Osaka announced that she would not play her semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters in protest.

The unprecedented strike lasted only a few days, but the impact was indelible. NBA players returned to action after the league met their demands, which included the formation of a social justice coalition plus improved voting opportunities in team markets.

  • The movement also underscored just how influential and effective athletes can be. Players rallied together, harnessed their collective voices and platforms, and galvanized real, tangible action. Truly unforgettable.

✊The rise in athlete activism

Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism
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Athletes have been leveraging their positions to inspire change for generations — a trend that only grew during the summer of 2020. Players and coaches took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, organizing and advocating for change.

  • Some immediate improvements? The USWNT (specifically, their players of color and LGBTQIA+ athletes) led the fight in advocating for the U.S. Soccer Federation to rescind its ban on players kneeling for the national anthem.
  • And in college sports, former Georgia Tech associate head basketball coach Eric Reveno started a movement to mandate Election Day as an off-day for Division I NCAA student-athletes, a goal that was realized soon after (though later relaxed).

But, four years after the events of 2020, there’s still ample room for change. Black lives are still being threatened, and those within the LGBTQIA+ community are especially vulnerable.

🎉 How to celebrate

Celebrating Juneteenth and the intersection of sports and activism
Source: Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Now that Juneteenth is finally a federal holiday, it’s time to commemorate and support. In the U.S., several sports leagues now have organizations advocating for and uplifting Black athletes.

In the soccer world, the NWSL’s Black Women’s Player Collective and MLS’ Black Players for Change are working to elevate Black athletes in the game and tackle the racial injustices that have limited Black folks in the sport and beyond.

These orgs were preceded by organizations like the Black Student-Athlete Alliance (BSAA), which has had a presence on many U.S. college and university campuses for years, providing community and support for collegiate athletes.

Over on the diamond, MLB is set to host a special regular-season game at Alabama’s historic Rickwood Field, the oldest pro ballpark in the U.S. and the former home of the Birmingham Black Barons, who competed in the Negro Leagues.

  • The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants will take the field tomorrow at 7:15 p.m. ET in honor of baseball legend and Alabama’s own, the legendary late Willie Mays.