Don’t cancel Derby — use it!

My uncle recently sent me a quote from businessman Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Nobody struggles with this more than I do, but…For protesters, seeking justice for Breonna Taylor is the main thing. Spreading the message that Black lives matter is the main thing.

Some protesters contend that Churchill Downs should cancel the Derby entirely — to show support for justice and racial equality and because the city should not be celebrating at a historic time of racial division.

I completely agree the city should not be celebrating, but there is no celebrating this year even if the Derby runs. There will not be a festival or fans or late-night parties with celebrities in attendance. Canceling the race might seem like the only way for protesters to focus on the main thing.

But those who call for the Derby to be canceled may not have considered the critical role sports have played in amplifying major social movements — even what sports have already done for this movement.

Every major sporting event that I can recall attending has had some form of advocacy presence or protest aimed at spreading a message to fans on their way into the stadium: Over 60,000 fans at the Super Bowl, 80,000 fans at the Final Four, 175,000-plus fans at the Daytona 500 and, of course, more than 150,000 fans attending the Kentucky Derby, all greeted by protesters who care more about their cause than the event drawing all those people together.

Of course, the Derby will not have fans to engage this year, but there are other ways the event can support the important, main thing.

I guarantee that NBC will have a pre-race segment, probably narrated by announcer Mike Tirico, on Breonna Taylor and how the police killed her in her own home and then the subsequent months of protests in Louisville. To cancel the Derby would be to miss out on sending that story to over 16 million viewers.

What about when the winning jockey is interviewed immediately following the race? They could use that platform to add their voice to the movement, just as Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos did on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, black glove fists raised in the air, standing with bare feet to protest Black poverty in the U.S.

Look at what the NBA has done just this last month. After Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake, NBA players didn’t show up to play, led first by the Milwaukee Bucks, the team closest to Kenosha. This was followed by similar gestures of support in other sports, including the WNBA and Major League Baseball.

The NBA players considered ending the season for good, as a way to say: no justice, no entertainment. Ultimately, the players decided that if they canceled the season they would be forfeiting a significant platform to support the movement going forward.

Canceling would not help the main thing — it would hurt it. As it turned out, not playing, even for a couple of days, was more powerful because of the continued spotlight  once they returned to play.

The NBA also moved players’ names on the back of their jerseys and replaced them with personalized messages and slogans supporting equality. At first, the concept sounded trite — after all, who is sacrificing to have their name replaced on their jersey? But seldom does a minute go by that a different message doesn’t strike viewers through the TV. Each message, personal to the player, makes you stop and think for a moment or more. It turns out, just those words and short messages truly disrupt the traditional broadcast. They turned the sport, regularly an opportunity to forget about consequential, real-life issues, into a constant reminder of what’s actually important — the main thing.

So, instead of canceling, we should be asking: What can the Derby do to support the main thing?

Why not push Churchill Downs to adopt something similar for the 146th Derby? The jockeys’ silks, a trademark of the Derby aesthetic, tradition and unique to horse racing, used as a platform expressing support for racial equality, would be an unmissable statement to millions of viewers. Or cover the iconic twin spires in black?

Or delay the race by the “longest two minutes of silence.” For Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others killed by police, the main thing has to be the main thing: Black lives matter.