It is, of course, a scene as common to professional sports post-George Floyd as a high-five or a screaming coach: names or phrases associated with liberal causes célèbres.
What this achieves is unclear. It’s obvious those names and phrases have been chosen upstairs.
In the case of the NBA, the league didn’t even make any pretense that the phrases that appeared on the back of player jerseys originated anywhere but from a league-approved effort, with 29 messages officially vetted by league officials.
Never mind that some of them were so generic as to be useless (“Vote,” “Ally,” “Justice”) and some of them barely made sense (“Love Us” and “Listen to Us,” some of the most adored and listened to people on Earth were apparently saying).
In the NFL, meanwhile, the entire league put “End Racism” on the back of the end zone. (Thank heavens someone had the good sense to come out against racism. It’s high time, I say.)
On a more personal level, the league also decided to honor what it called victims of racism by letting each player pick one “victim” to put on the back of their helmet.
This led to one of the more misguided efforts to virtue-signal on the team level, that of the Pittsburgh Steelers to put the name of Antwon Rose Jr. on the back of their helmets for the entire season.
And yet, in this effort came one of the few instances of personal bravery — the decision of Steelers offensive captain Maurkice Pouncey to take the name of Rose off the back of his helmet and replace it with that of a slain police officer.
On the surface level, the decision to honor Rose seemed so easy. An unarmed black 17-year-old, he was shot and killed as he was running away from East Pittsburgh police after fleeing a traffic stop in 2018. The story put forth by the Steelers was that they wanted to be “unified” about who to choose — and so the decision was made to go with Rose.
There were problems with this choice from the outset, however.
First, while Rose may have been unarmed, there was plenty of reason for police to potentially assume Rose was dangerous. He was in a vehicle that was suspected of having been used in a drive-by shooting earlier in the day, and police said there was “ballistic damage to the rear window,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune.
While Rose was unarmed, two guns were recovered from the vehicle and Rose himself had gunshot residue on his hand, although prosecutors would eventually conclude another one of the teens committed the shooting. (Zaijuan Hester would plead guilty to the charges.)
Meanwhile, the officer who was charged with Rose’s death was acquitted.
Pouncey is a supporter of police causes. While he put Rose’s name on the back of his helmet during the first game of the season, the Steelers center said in a statement on Instagram that he “inadvertently supported a cause of which I did not fully comprehend the entire background of the case.”
And so, he wore the name of slain Pittsburgh police officer Eric Kelly instead on Sunday:
— 🗣️dubvLIVE.com🇺🇲➡️🌎🔊 (@dubvNOW) September 20, 2020
Kelly, a black police officer, was killed during a 2009 standoff after responding to a call for backup after working an overnight shift. Officers Paul Sciullo and Stephen Mayhle had already been killed by Richard Poplawski while responding to a domestic disturbance. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kelly, a 14-year veteran of the force, left behind a wife and three children.
Inasmuch as either could be declared a victim of racism, Kelly had more claim to it than Rose. According to The New York Times, Poplawski had an extensive history of bigotry online, including a detestation of blacks, race-mixing and the “Zionist occupation.”
And something that would have hit home for Pouncey: After the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2008, Poplawski posted about how football itself was little more than “negroball.”
He was sentenced to death in 2011.
Pouncey wasn’t the only Steelers player who decided against wearing Rose’s name on the back of his helmet for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, although none of the other players chose Eric Kelly.
Running back Benny Snell chose Breonna Taylor, while defensive end Stephon Tuitt and wide receiver James Washington left the space reserved for names blank.
Tackle Alejandro Villanueva — the former Army Ranger who made news during the 2017 spate of anthem-kneeling in the NFL by being the only Steeler to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the one week in which the whole league decided it was woker than Colin Kaepernick — had already taped over Rose’s name during the first week of games and replaced it with Alwyn Cashe, an Army sergeant and Medal of Honor candidate killed in Afghanistan back in 2005. He continued that in the second week.
The rest of the team, however, continued to go with Rose.
That, in part, seems to be because the decision was made for them. Vince Williams, a linebacker, had said there was no vote taken. So why Rose? Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said that was the idea of the “people upstairs.”
And that’s really the ticket here: the idea that getting woke finally doesn’t mean going broke.
This time, the American people really want sociopolitical messages thrown in their faces when they sit down to watch a sports game. Let’s just make sure they’re the right ones. Unarmed black teenager on the back of all the team’s helmets? It sounds great to the “people upstairs,” provided no one does their due diligence.
However, you don’t even need to think about why Eric Kelly wasn’t in the mix. In fact, the only real courage here is honoring a slain police officer when that’s become terminally unfashionable — even though he’s the only real victim of racism here.
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