Here's my September column for my hometown newspaper, the award-winning @HollandSentinel...
I remember leading an especially tense meeting several years ago when, during a break, one of the participants approached me and whispered, “You have more power in this situation than you think you do.” And then she walked away.
It was a startling bit of coaching, but she was right. I had power at that meeting I wasn’t using. I had the power, for example, to say no. Instead, I remember feeling powerless. I had allowed myself to be taken advantage of. When the meeting resumed, though, I somehow found the courage to say no and set a boundary.
People in abusive relationships often struggle to say no. The reason, of course, is fear. When we are being abused or bullied, we fear getting hurt, emotionally, physically, or economically. But sometimes, when we can’t accept any more abuse or bullying, we find our voices and use them. “Stop it,” we say. “I’m not going to let you do that to me anymore.”
Many people in this country and around the world seem to be finding their voices and using their power.
College athletes may not seem to most of us like an abused and bullied group, but they are undoubtedly being taken advantage of. While athletic programs at Division 1 schools rake in tens of millions of dollars each year (the University of Michigan football team alone generates $122.3 million of revenue per year), the student-athletes receive tuition and a stipend. I confess that for most of my life this seemed like a reasonable arrangement. But as the disparity grows between revenues received by universities and what student-athletes receive in return, arguments in favor of continuing as before no longer seem acceptable. I support the hundreds of athletes in the Pac-12 conference who are saying no, who are demanding, among other things, the end to the demand that they sign medical liability waivers in the middle of a global pandemic.
Professional basketball players don’t seem like an abused and bullied group either, but for years players were reluctant to speak about anything beyond basketball. Michael Jordan, who once played for the Chicago Bulls and sold Nike shoes, famously defended himself for his lack of political involvement by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” More recently, when LeBron James made political comments in an interview, the FOX News journalist Laura Ingraham said she was not interested in political advice from “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.” This “shut up and dribble” attitude was intended to silence someone who has a voice and considerable influence within American culture. Jordan has remained relatively silent about politics, while James has become even more outspoken.
A week ago, days after a white police officer shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back, the Milwaukee Bucks, who are favored to win the NBA title this year, decided not to take the floor for game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. Instead, they remained in the locker room as the Magic warmed up. When game time arrived, the Bucks, whose arena is only a few miles from Kenosha, where the shooting took place, refused to play. Their strike wasn’t authorized by the players’ union. It might have resulted in a forfeit or fines or both. Still, they made the decision to use their voices and claim their power. In the end, the entire NBA playoff schedule was suspended for two days, which is an unprecedented development in NBA history.
What’s happening right now in Belarus, the former Soviet republic, is a long way from college athletics and the NBA, but the dynamics seem similar to me. Days after an election in which the incumbent president claimed an unlikely victory, with more than 80 percent of the vote, tens of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets in protest. Thousands of them were reportedly beaten and arrested, but they continued to march, demonstrating that even in an oppressive political environment it is possible to say no. This story, like the story of college athletics and the NBA, will continue to unfold. In the meantime, I am delighted to know there are people in my country and around the world who will not allow themselves to be abused and bullied.
I still occasionally find it difficult to say no. I am still afraid of what finding my voice will cost me. But I have learned over the years that I have power, more than I sometimes realize. I find my power not in an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle proudly worn across my chest. My power lies in the deeply rooted knowledge that I am a child of God and deserve to be treated that way. At long last I have learned to say no.