It feels like we are at a turning point in human history, with mass protests centred around police brutality in the United States sparking an important global conversation on systemic racism.
Not surprisingly, the issue has quickly become a politically divisive one and the less-than-progressive views of some members of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ fanbase prompted star receiver Shaq Evans to send out an emotional series of tweets on Friday.
“Had to come back real quick after I heard what Sask fans had to say about BLM and boycotts. Wow, super disappointing as I had a lot of love for Sask. Not anymore. Always wanted to play there. Now I’m not so sure,” wrote Evans. “And please anyone that wants to negatively comment, please do so I can block you.”
In a summer marked by tragedy and protest, the most recent in a string of high-profile police killings of unarmed black men has pro athletes taking action. After Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wis., NBA players refused to play playoff games in order to keep the national conversation on the issue.
Other leagues followed suit with many NFL teams cancelling practices to instead release statements and hold press conferences to push for real change at all levels of government.
Though their season has been cancelled, many CFL players spoke out in support of the protests and received a barrage of insensitive, hurtful and racist comments from fans as a result.
Evans was taking a break from social media, but felt compelled to return and voice his displeasure at how his teammates were being treated by those Rider fans who took issue with the protests.
“Like how can you speak negatively like that! A lot of our team is African American. We are out there playing hard, sacrificing our bodies so you can be entertained. And now we need just positivity from you and you basically spit on us. That hurts,” Evans continued.
“And I know everyone in Sask isn’t like that. But just put yourself in my shoes. It’s people that have interacted with us on multiple occasions speaking negatively like this. It just give me cause to pause when talking to people because you don’t know how they feel in their heart.”
Evans is coming off an all-star season for Saskatchewan in 2019. He recorded 72 catches for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns before signing a one-year extension with the Riders. His chance to produce in 2020 was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic and Evans indicated he would only opt out of his contract for an NFL guarantee.
As a pending free agent, Evans would have been a key piece for the the Riders to re-sign in 2021. The passion of the Rider faithful would have been a big part of the draw to returning, however he has now seen the darker side of the fanbase and its embrace was far from warm.
It’s an experience silently shared by dozens of vocal players around the league: they only love you when you’re in uniform. Although, he does appreciate the support of fans who came to the aid of him and his teammates.
“To all the people that truly love us, I love you back! Just know that,” Evans finished his thread.
Later, Evans felt compelled to issue an apology for his comments on Twitter.
“I want to apologize if I offended anyone is Sask. I see how my tweet could be interpreted as me painting Sask with a broad brush,” he wrote. “It’s just an emotional time right now and I should’ve used better words. So again, I’m sorry to all the good people in Sask.”
Therein lies part of the problem. While Evans apologized for his raw emotions, those who triggered them emerge unscathed. Canadians and CFL fans pride themselves on inclusivity in public, but looking at the comments on articles and tweets continue to show a barely hidden underbelly of — at best — racial insensitivity and — at worst — bigotry.
Evans is a human first and athlete second, just like every other player who wears a CFL jersey. Fans who seek to use social media to dismiss, belittle or oppress the players they cheer for need to take a hard look in the mirror. They might just find themselves responsible for running talented players out of their own franchises.
What good is the thirteenth man if you’ve alienated the other twelve?