By Garrison Clark

Kickball for Kaepernick is a Greensboro based event centered around creatively boycotting and discussing the NFL through kickball games. Joel Sronce is an organizer at K4K.

Garrison: How did Kickball for Kaepernick get started?

Joel: Well, I was at this event and it was a tribute to Dick Gregory, the comedian activist who died a few months ago, in Winston-Salem at this place called Triad Cultural Arts. We were talking about Kaepernick, and I was sort of personally thinking about whether and how I would do my own boycott because I think that even if it’s in your own little way you should put pressure on the people who are making these shitty decisions. Someone at that event said “you shouldn’t just not watch the NFL on Sundays, you should spend that time with a kid. Like you should get to know a kid and spend time with them and mentor them.” And I thought “That’s a great idea, to make your boycott a little more intentional and active rather than just passively not watching.” So it got me to thinking that we should really do this publicly. We should have a public boycott that says none of us are watching the NFL. And not only are we not watching the NFL, we’re out here in solidarity with Kaepernick. But we’re also going to use this time to plug into local activism, come together and exchange ideas. And it really is kid-centered. I make handouts every week that are kid-friendly, that are about athletes and activism and why Kaepernick and the NFL are having their dispute, and whose shoulders Kaepernick is standing on: athletes who have been activists in the past.

What has the response been like from city residents?

So we do it in Center City Park downtown, which I’m glad we’ve been able to because it’s a very public space, and if we did it out in Hester Park [located on the outskirts of town], no one would be coming by to see what was happening. It’s been really positive so far. We haven’t had anyone come wag their finger at us or say “You’re doing the wrong thing.” None of that has happened. And maybe it will and maybe it has happened to certain people on social media but I haven’t really heard about it. So it’s been really cool so far.

Just a little background, I had the idea and I reached out to a couple of people, a comrade in ISO and some other people I knew from activism: events and other things. People I thought would be really into the idea and able to help with it. And so often it’s their kids and then their friends and their friends’ kids. It’s that community but almost every week we’ll have people walking around in the park and saying what is this and can we play kickball and sometimes they’ll stick around and listen to the conversations we have. Every week we seem to sort of reacha new family, a new person and occasionally I’ll have someone text me “is it happening this week?” and stuff like that.  It fluctuates up and down, in terms of who all can come out for whatever reason, but the response has been really good so far. It’s been all on the positive side.

So compared to standard boycotts and protests, how does the centering of a kickball game differ? What are the differences in organizing and responses compared to say picketing or boycotting?

That’s a good question. So one thing is that there are no real eyes on us, meaning we’re not doing this to intimidate the people who we’re boycotting against. We’re not right outside a factory or something like that. It’s a lot more about solidarity with one another and building local activism than it is about trying to- like we don’t hope to single handedly or even assume that we’re part of a bigger version of this kind of thing that’s going to bring down the NFL. So I think that fact, the fact that the main goal is solidarity and conversation, is what makes it a little different.

And it’s also fun. It really is. And the kickball part of it, I think kickball is a great sport because it’s easy for all ages to play together and it’s non-gendered. It makes everyone look forward to it. Whereas protests are serious and they don’t really have that element of fun that seems to continue to bring people back every week. And one thing we also do, this isn’t a direct response to that question, is we’ll make these signs. Like, have you seen any pictures of it?

Yeah.

Kids will make these signs and we’ll stick them in the ground, sort of like electionsigns. And that’s cool too because they’re able to use their creativity to express themselves. It’s nice that kids who are more interested in doing that than playing kickball have that chance as well. And we made shirts one time!

Awesome! So talking with participants, have the comments of Trump or NFL owners come up? Have they changed anything about the approach? I’m thinking specifically about recent comments made by the Houston Texans owner [Rob McNair] about the “inmates running the prison.” The NFL protests become a lot more politicized than at the beginning of the season.

So it’s interesting because that’s sort of ballooned like crazy this year. A lot more into the mainstream. Which is great.

But yeah I sort of assumed that Trump’s lunacy would allow for fodder for conversation. And we definitely address the things that he says. Parents can bring their own censorship if they want but that’s very rarely the case. They’re usually very comfortable and even excited for the opportunity to have their kids be part of discussions about the things the president said. Like he called the players “sons of bitches and wouldn’t it be great if they got fired for disrespecting the flag.” So like A.) Why is he doing that? What is he trying to get out of that? And B.) What has happened to the conversation? Remember, Kaepernick’s original protest was not about being anti-flag, not about being anti-anthem or anti-military. It was about police brutality. And the fact, he said “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Where else to draw attention to that issue except during the anthem because it’s going to raise attention. So why are Trump and so many owners trying to move away from that conversation? Why do they have that intention in moving this conversation away from police brutality and systemic oppression to the flag and being patriotic/unpatriotic? And it’s great because kids have been grappling with these issues. There was a high schooler who had a lot to say, a middle schooler who had a lot to say. And they know it’s wrong. I think it’s great to be able to see that engagement in kids and almost try and foster this kid led discussion because it needs to be a space where it’s not like “Mom says don’t watch the NFL” but “I really want to know why this is happening” and not only why the original protest happened but how it’s turned into this sort of tug of war about the actual intent of what’s been happening.

 

I think that’s a good segue into this next question. What do think the role of politics in sports in the US is? Both at the national level and locally.

What do you mean by that?

Well, seeing the backlash to the kneeling protest, it is sort of a cookie cutter response. “Politics does not have a place in sports.” People go to sports to get away from politics and everything. And for many people, it’s more unimaginable to have politics involved in sports at the local level. So given that, where politics fit in with sports?

There’s a lot to talk about but I’ll try to keep it short. Obviously the same problems that are in greater society and culture work their way into sports. We can be talking about race- only one NFL owner is nonwhite, except for the Green Bay Packers who don’t have one owner. Michael Jordan is the only black owner in the NBA. And so you hear people say “Sports are integrated and they’re this meritocracy,” but they’re really not. There are still obviously issues of race, and misogyny- I’ve heard women’s sports get about 3% of the coverage on ESPN. They are very political arenas.

People want sports to just be entertainment; they want to go home and only worry about how their team is doing. It’s a kind of respite in that way. But I think that it is an unbelievably powerful force in our country because so many people watch and pay attention to it. And we’re fortunate to have people like Kaepernick because to be on that level in sport and still risk the end of your career, to still have the courage to make a political statement and risk the consequences, which he is suffering now, is a huge deal.

And sports are also commodities. The NCAA is a great way to look at that. The people at the top are making seven figures. Billion-dollar TV deals. And none of the players are making any money, in any sport.

A really important thing as a socialist is to highlight the player-owner, worker-boss relationship because the comment that McNair, the Houston Texans owner, made- we don’t want the inmates running the prison- but as socialist we do want the inmates running the prison. Obviously that language is fucked up, but what many people want to see- Dave Zirin [left-wing sportswriter], us- is that we want to see the workers, the athletes come together and say “We have the power here. You, the owners, don’t go put on a uniform and amaze people with your physical genius. We do that.” That’s what socialist want, is for people in any profession to do that. We people at any layer of society to say “wait a minute, you can’t just jerk us around like this. We are where the power is.” The way that we’re currently set up is through capitalism, and questioning and fighting that economic and political system at any level is a necessity

We haven’t necessarily gotten to that level of discussion at Kickball for Kaepernick but I do want to get there.  And I also want to connect the story of Juana Tobar Ortega [local undocumented resident who has been in sanctuary since earlier this year] to K4K because I don’t think her case is very well known. And I want to ask these kids: why does Juana have to do this? She has lived here for 25 years, she’s a part of her community and has kids. Why does she have to live in a church? Because I think in ISO and probably DSA as well, it’s really important to talk about overlapping oppressions. It is important to understand the similarities of police brutality against African American communities and other state violence against undocumented communities. Who are putting these communities in these situations and why? Why can’t she go home, why does she have to live in a church? And it’s a local story. We can tell the kids that a few miles away from here Juana is living in a church and hear what they have to say. They won’t try and give a moral validation of it but they will try and analyze the systemic problems that are affecting Juana, or Jose Charles, or others.

Has there been any connection between the issues at stake in the kneeling protest- police brutality and oppression against communities of color and instances of those issues here at the local level? The Greensboro Police Department has had several high profile instances of brutality and systemic discrimination, such as Jose Charles, so I’m wondering if in discussions at Kickball for Kaepernick if that connection is talked about?

We have yet to address specific local cases, like the high profile cases you alluded to. But it’s not lost on the kids, the majority of whom are kids of color. It’s not lost on them that what Kaepernick is talking about, and then what the other kids are talking about, is the role of police in our lives and police brutality. That’s something we discuss. So it’s not like these things are happening in Kaepernick’s world and not here. We recognize through shared experience that the things that he is talking about are very much worth fighting for. Because we see a 16-year-old kid like Jose Charles get assaulted by the police and the Mayor and the City Council don’t stand up for him. What is that? That is the very thing that Kaepernick wants to address. And we support him, not only because of the sacrifice he is making but because we want to address the same problem in our communities.

I wanted to talk briefly about some of the handouts that we have been discussing at Kickball for Kaepernick.

Sure, absolutely.

The first one we used was on other athlete activists, made specifically for the kids. We discussed Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a Muslim-American woman who holds the Massachusetts state high school scoring record for either boys or girls. She played college ball at Memphis and then at Indiana State, becoming the first college player to play in a hijab. But she couldn’t play professionally because FIBA had a rule that you couldn’t wear head coverings, even though no one had been injured by head coverings. Because of her activism, gaining all these signatures, and teaming up with other Muslim-American athletes, FIBA was ultimately pressured to pass a rule that permitted  head coverings.

So after reading this with the kids, we asked: how was she successful and is there anything we can learn from her? And we’ll try to get the kids to understand how her work and her solidarity with other athletes helped to create change.

We also looked at the Greensboro Sit-in and the legend that a group of NC A&T football players joined on one of the days of the sit-ins and formed a flying-v around the activists to protect them. We asked the kids how they felt to know that this happened here in our city and to know that athletes were involved.

And finally we talked about Jesse Owens and about how Adolf Hitler didn’t shake his hand at the 1936 Olympics after Owens won gold. But then Owens came back to the US and FDR didn’t send him a telegram or anything like that. By the winter, he was racing against a horse for money. And there was a quote from Barack Obama that said “I want Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that they may cause.” And we wanted the kids to answer the question:Is what Obama said fair?

With these hand-outs I’m hoping to create discussion and to have the kids grapple with these questions.

What can folks do to help support Kickball for Kaepernick and how can they connect with y’all?

We have facebook events every week and the events are on Sundays at Center City Park in downtown Greensboro. The FB event for this week was Kickball for Kaepernick Week 8 so they can find the events by searching that way. With the winter coming up, I’m personally happy to bundle up and go out there, but with a lot of kids we probably won’t be having much in terms of events. But I think looking into  joining us every Sunday at 1PM or through social media connecting with me and others just to talk is beneficial too. 

Our plan now is to meet up indoors around Greensboro at a café or at someone’s house and have the same approach but with board games instead. We’ll spend a while playing cards, board games, anything, but then we’ll take a break and look at some handouts and talk about what’s happening with Kaepernick, politics and sports, and with other local issues too.I think looking into joining us on Sundays would be great, or connecting with me and othersthrough social media just to talk is beneficial too.
Joel Sronce is a writer in Greensboro, a member of ISO, and a contributor here at PLR.