South of downtown Minneapolis, George Floyd’s life rested in the hands of an authority figure following his arrest. Lying face down on the ground, Floyd’s repeated cry for help was disregarded by the white police officer transferring his weight on the 46-year-old’s neck. Multiple wailing pleads were not enough to compel Derek Chauvin to lift his left knee and clear the African-American’s airway. Three of Chauvin’s then-fellow cops stood by and watched, their complicity as deafening as the final words uttered by Floyd.
I can’t breathe tragically progressed into I can’t be.
Frances Tiafoe and Ayan Broomfield sat numb for a few minutes after taking in the viral video of Floyd’s careless death. Chauvin and Floyd were a harrowingly familiar juxtaposition of roles in a narrative that has all too often ended with the same outcome. As three words played over in their minds, Floyd’s presence filled the couple’s living room. Inaction would only further submerge his gasps for help.
I can’t breathe transcended into If I stay silent, I can’t breathe.
“Our Lives Begin To End The Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter” Martin Luther King Jr. Thank you to everyone that joined us in this, it starts with each and every one of us. • • @serenawilliams @iamgaelmonfils @katadams68 @malwashington @kgmontjane1 @zackeveee @k1ng_2._0 @heatherwatson92 @jarmere @naomiosaka @sloanestephens @tennisdarian @eastpoint_jenkins @tsongaofficiel @asia.muhammad @coacho.g @r_bizzeee @donaldyoungjr @mcneil8970 @coreygauff @haileybaptiste @ymerjr @philsbrainparade @thechandarubin @michaelmmoh @sachiavick @kamaumurray @cocogauff @garrisonzina #tennisforequality #lovewins #itisbiggerthantennis • • Song: Glory (@johnlegend @common) Thank you for creating such an impactful piece of art. Special thank you to Brian Tsao (@the_general_tsao ) for helping with edits. • • @wta @atp @espn @usta @itf__tennis @shaunking @bleacherreport @theshaderoom @octagon
Curious to see if their emotions were shared by others, Broomfield and Tiafoe began reaching out to the black tennis community. As Tiafoe took charge with making the rounds, Broomfield developed the concept for a video the two would ultimately put together.
“We weren’t even sure what needed to be said, but we were both feeling the same sense of guilt: staying silent,” Broomfield told TENNIS.com. “When we thought about engaging others, we really weren’t sure where to begin, so we simply started with the first phone call and quickly realized that the video also touched others who also wanted to express their feelings.”
In the clip, Tiafoe and Broomfield begin by communicating the sentiment behind the production, to spread awareness about unwarranted fatalities of African-Americans in the U.S. at the hands of law enforcement. Calling for unity among all classes and categories, Broomfield states, “This is definitely bigger than tennis,” before she and her partner placed their tennis racquets on the floor and put their hands up.
Notable faces, including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, James Blake, Zina Garrison, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Coco Gauff appear throughout the montage. While all join in with raising their hands, Glory, an Oscar-winning anthem written by John Legend and Common for the movie Selma, underscores the video’s intent, which concludes by paying tribute to several black victims of wrongful deaths.
“The power and significance of the song speaks for itself. It was written to inspire and unite, and it seemed appropriate for conveying our message of standing together as one united front,” said Broomfield. “On a personal level, we also listen to this song as a part of our pre-match warm up because it’s inspirational and certainly motivates you to be ‘present’.”
Blake has first-hand experience with aggravated police behavior, having never been given the chance to show his hands after being mistaken for a suspect at large. He was instead thrown to the ground on September 9, 2015, in New York City, and falsely arrested. Blake later wrote a book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together, detailing how the experience implored him to become a greater advocate for social justice.
“I’m so proud of Frances and Ayan for setting this video up to raise awareness and let people know that protests and protesters are exercising their rights to be heard and for us to plead for lives to be saved. This is obviously done peacefully and with the right message,” said Blake.
“I’m inspired by Frances, who I have worked with a bit on the court, for what he is doing off the court. He is a great human being and that makes me proud to know him and support him in any way I can.”
In an interview with Franceinfo, Tsonga spoke about how racist behavior shaped him into the person he is today. From being singled out among his circle of friends for identity checks to members of the media obsessively referring to him as the product of a Congolese father in his earlier days on tour, Tsonga openly outlined the “non-acceptance of difference” he's constantly reminded of.
“I was one of the only children of an immigrant father in my elementary school. I'll let you imagine the rest,” his translation read. “This tragedy is just one too many. Inevitably it makes you want to shout louder, to shout my pain.”
Uplifting reactions to the efforts of Broomfield and Tiafoe have poured in over the past 24 hours. Williams tweeted, “It starts with all of us. Thank you.” Grand Slam champions Stan Wawrinka, Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Bianca Andreescu were among the numerous active players to reshare it on their Instagram Stories.
Blake isn’t surprised by the response, after seeing what the American-Canadian duo were able to produce in such a short amount of time.
“I think the impact is staggering,” he said. “To see that many black and brown faces in a sport that has traditionally been considered a white, country-club sport is surprising for a lot of casual fans. It’s also impressive that Frances was able to get in touch with all of those players and coaches. I think it shows the solidarity of a small group of athletes that want change.”
The feeling was mutual for Broomfield, who won the 2019 NCAA doubles title to cap off her collegiate career at UCLA.
“We are extremely grateful to James, Serena and others for being a part of this. The fact that we were able to pull it all together so quickly with the help of many, speaks to our shared sense of responsibility.”
In Glory, Common raps, “No one can win the war individually. It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people's energy.”
Between Tiafoe and Broomfield, and voices like Osaka, Gauff and Felix Auger-Aliassime using their platforms to speak up, young stars across tennis appear to be more socially active than ever. For anyone carrying the privilege that comes with being inherently white, we cannot experience standing in the same shoes of George Floyd, or the aforementioned athletes. But one gesture we can offer as a sign of that recognition is to put our hands up, pay attention and demonstrate a key agent for change: I can hear you.