As the protests rolled on and the temperature rose, the sports world began making statements.
They came from high-profile players and celebrity coaches, from hockey, baseball and even from Michael Jordan.
Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL who didn’t see fit for Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality, was so moved by the image of now-former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on the neck of George Floyd that even he felt compelled to make clear that in this case, taking a knee was also bad.
But while everyone was trying to be heard, Chris Egi was in his apartment, making a list and drafting plans.
The former Harvard University basketball captain, class of ’18 spokesman and Canadian junior national team captain saw a world raging at injustice and decided to help craft a plan to right wrongs and reshape the future.
The mission was personal, too. His friend and former Harvard teammate, Seth Towns, was arrested and briefly detained on Friday in Columbus, Ohio while protesting police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Towns, who is transferring to Ohio State, shared his experience via a series of Tweets, and appeared on ESPN.
In a span of just 24 hours, I walked across a Harvard virtual graduation stage into the back of police van alongside other peaceful protestors—both of which I am equally proud of. pic.twitter.com/qtvXmw0Fwq
— Seth (@seth_towns17) May 30, 2020
“In a span of just 24 hours, I walked across a Harvard virtual graduation stage into the back of a police van alongside other peaceful protestors, both of which I am equally proud of.”
Egi was moved.
“He was a captain this past year, a really great guy, I’m proud of him and kind of look up to him,” Egi said. “So seeing him on ESPN talking about the cause and seeing the potential for our platform to make an impact, I thought it would make sense to try and coordinate that to some extent.”
In short order Egi, and a team of friends who helped, launched No More Names — a “youth-led fundraising and awareness building organization created to combat criminal injustice, police brutality, and to empower youth to vote” — at Harvard and brought together nearly 1,700 student athletes to rally behind the banner, among them several Canadians.
“The first day it was: ‘Let’s get as many people in here as possible’” he said. “And then we had to figure out what we’re going to do with it.”
In a small way it’s analogous to the challenge the movement as a whole is facing — how to capture, sustain and direct all the energy and passion being expressed in demonstrations throughout the U.S. and in other parts of the world.
What people want to do or have happen is clear, the how is still taking shape.
Egi and his team are doing their part.
“I spent Sunday drafting an organization structure and how it makes sense for it to work and different communications and me a team of people worked up that four-point plan,” he said.
“The way we’ve framed it is, one: build a community where we can talk about these things and people can share what’s going on in the places where they’re from so we have a team, a family as they go through this tough process.
“Two: to have kind of an educational platform to try and bring in different speakers and activists on a regular schedule and inform them of different laws, inform them of different actions that are going on, inform them of ways they can help.
“Three: I want to try and put administrative pressure on the organizations we interact with — whether that’s our basketball programs, our athletic departments or our schools more broadly — to not just release statements but to release action plans about how they want to help.
“And lastly: unified social media pushes to get word out about what activists are doing on the ground. A lot of times their story can get muddled by the media.
“Those are the themes we’re working on.”
Recent events have energized him and many like him.
Egi was the first varsity athlete to have addressed Harvard’s graduation ceremonies when he spoke this time almost two years ago. He took the occasion to weave his family history — the son of Nigerian parents who emigrated to Canada with big dreams for their kids — with how his time at one of the world’s premier universities was framed by a police shootings of unarmed young black.
He arrived at Harvard just as the Black Lives Matter movement was gathering, following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and was leaving shortly after Stephon Clark was shot by police in Sacramento.
Egi left the stage to a standing ovation, and has since been working as an investment analyst for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street. But as much work and effort as he put into change, the tragedies kept coming.
They weighed on him.
“I was at the point where I was almost continually exhausted with what’s been going on, to the point where I was almost had this feeling of resignation,” he said. “A couple of months ago, three months ago, I was almost like, ‘I don’t know what to do, nothing I’m doing is working.’
“But with these events you have to understand that even in the face of that, you have to keep going.
“That exhaustion turned into kind of a focused rage, and trying to figure out how I can best lend my hand in a way that’s consequential.”
It’s all he can do. Egi says the real heroes are activists who work daily to make change and bring awareness to issues large and small. But he believes it’s important he find a way to help, also.
“A big part is just me learning ways to amplify the voices of people who are really in it every day, who are doing great, compelling work on the ground who are spending more time dealing with this issue than I could ever dedicate to it,” says Egi. “They they have the statistics, the research, the connections so, what do I have?
“I have access to these institutions, I have access to privilege, I have access to this platform, so I’m trying to see how I can use that to help what they’re doing, rather than try and recreate the wheel.”
Egi appreciates that higher-profile sports figures than him have lent their voices to the cause that he’s been working towards since he was a teenager.
But it can’t stop there.
“I think the statements are great. I think the question is: What is the next step? How do we move beyond a statement? Not just talking about it, but being about it and doing that beyond however long the protests last to when stuff is quiet.
“There are people who are being killed off-camera, and people aren’t tweeting about it, so what are you doing [then]?
“I think the biggest way sports can play a part is, one, continuing to build awareness because people look up to athletes. For many people from less diverse areas, their sports stars are the most prominent black people in their lives. So having those people at least make a stand and make statements and be allies — have everyone step up and make sure people are aware of it, that they don’t stand for it. I think the next step is a continued, day by day, just chopping away at it.
As former president and fellow Harvard graduate Barack Obama pointed out in an essay he published Monday:
“The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable … but eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices.”
Which is where Egi is at. Tragedy has fuelled protests and inspired statements of purpose and solidarity, but the road to fairness and equality requires many steps.