While driving outside of his hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, recently, Ian Troost had to stop himself midsentence. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. As the former Pitt football player passed a farm, he spotted a large plywood sign rising from the ground. On it, in a county in which 95% of residents are white, was the message "Black Lives Matter."
"That's awesome," Troost said.
Over the past several weeks, moments like that have become much more common. It's not just Troost's small corner of southeastern New Hampshire that's changing; it's the entire United States.
Following the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, recent examples in a string of well-publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, public outcry and protests in cities large and small have forced Americans to confront the country's sordid racial history and begin trying to find answers to institutional, centuries-old problems.
One area in which a shifting landscape is most evident is all too familiar to Troost. In 2017, while he was a walk-on kicker, he knelt as the national anthem was played before Pitt's games against Rice and North Carolina State to protest police brutality and systemic racism. By doing so, Troost and other athletes, from NFL standouts to high school football players, were following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, who first knelt during the national anthem in 2016 while a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
Once rebuked, such acts and the movement they represent are rapidly becoming more accepted. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll released June 11 found that 52% of Americans agree it is "OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African-Americans" compared to 36% who say it's inappropriate to do so.
As the nation continues to grapple with questions about race, it's doing the same with the way it perceives one of the enduring symbols of that fight.
"Increasingly, there's a huge network of athletes who are progressive, articulate and willing to speak out despite the consequences," said Rob Ruck, a history professor at Pitt who specializes in the history of sport. "Forty years ago, when an athlete or coach would have done that, their livelihood would have been threatened. Think of all the guys who were not stars whose careers were ended prematurely because of their willingness to speak out. That's less likely these days. It not only feels different; it is different."
The abrupt repositioning has led to images and statements that, as recently as a month ago, might have seemed unimaginable, from police officers kneeling and marching with protesters to Utah senator Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, taking part in a protest in Washington D.C., and telling a reporter he was doing so "to make sure that people understand that Black lives matter."
In sports, the transformation has been just as astonishing.