Jeremy Koling’s anti-racist gesture, four years in the making
By Josh Woods, PhD ~
The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis during an arrest last May has expanded the number of athletes and sports organizations supporting social justice initiatives and embracing the Black Lives Matter movement.
In recent weeks, several NBA, WNBA and MLB teams cancelled games to protest racial injustice, NFL football players kneeled during the national anthem, and US Open Champion Naomi Osaka wore facemasks to honor black victims of racial injustice. In all corners of sport, from skateboarding and BMX freestyle to roller derby and ultimate, anti-racist athletes have been turning up the volume and pushing for change.
Some pro disc golfers and disc golf organizations have stepped up as well. The Disc Golf Pro Tour (DGPT) was among the few organizations to offer a statement on Floyd’s death containing the phrase “black lives matter,” and followed it with two forums on diversity and inclusion on its YouTube channel. Jomez also released an early statement, along with the PDGA and a few other businesses.
Still, the disc golf community’s reaction to recent police killings and abuses of black people has been neither loud nor far-reaching. Most disc golf companies and pro players have remained publicly silent.
Through my research for an upcoming academic book about disc golf, I’ve become familiar with numerous disc golf groups and pages on Facebook and other social media. Issues of race rarely emerge in these groups. Many disc golfers seem reluctant to discuss racial injustice or the underrepresentation of racial minorities in the sport. As it stands, 91 to 95 percent of disc golfers are white.
The muted discussion of race in disc golf was interrupted on September 14, when Jeremy Koling, pro disc golfer and beloved tournament announcer, appeared on the JomezPro YouTube channel wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt while commentating the MPO’s final nine holes at the 2020 MVP Open. The shirt was visible only briefly, but an image of it found its way onto social media.
In one disc golf group on Facebook, a post including a photo and a salty comment about Koling’s shirt generated more than 1,200 comments, countless reactions and was still available to view as of publication. Most comments were sympathetic toward Koling’s pro-BLM gesture, advocated for social justice or offered support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
On a smaller scale, a Parked tweet featuring Koling’s t-shirt received many more likes and retweets than any previous tweet and was almost universally supported by commenters.
Against the backdrop of civil rights history, Koling’s woke wardrobe choice is a small gesture. Yet, disc golf’s sizable reaction to it got me wondering. Why’d he do it? Why don’t more pros do it? And will we see more of it?
“As Silent as I Can Be”
At the beginning of our one-hour interview, Koling’s answers were as neat and rehearsed as his twenty-foot putts. “With a platform there comes a responsibility to speak against injustice,” he said.
But as Koling continued, it became clear that his stance is partly rooted in a visceral, emotional reaction to watching video footage of police killing or abusing black people.
After describing the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake, he said, “When stuff like that happens and you see it on video, if it doesn’t elicit a reaction from you, that says more than anything else. If you’re silent in that situation, you’re complicit in something that is overwhelmingly negative.”
Koling said that wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt on Jomez was the least he could do. “That shirt is as silent as I can be,” he said.
Waking Up in a Vintage Clothing Shop
The longer we talked, the deeper Koling journeyed into the backstory of his position on racial justice.
Four years ago, while visiting his sister in Los Angles, Koling was shopping in a vintage clothing store when he came across a D.A.R.E program t-shirt from the 1990s. He later told his sister how much he wanted the shirt, but they didn’t have his size.
Rather than commiserate with her brother’s failed shopping adventure, she said, “Why would you want that shirt? The D.A.R.E. program was part of the War on Drugs, which, essentially, is part of a modern-day version of slavery.”
Despite his deep respect for his sister, he rejected her claim. “I was like, ‘no way … I’m not having this,’” he said. “What she was saying challenged me, and it was really uncomfortable.”
The conversation motivated Koling to do some research. Among other things, he watched 13th, a documentary film about racial inequality in the US. In response to the Floyd killing, Netflix made this movie available to everyone free on YouTube, and it has been viewed more than five million times. He also mentioned the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad as his guide. You can listen to an interview with Saad on National Public Radio here.
“The more research I did on this, the more I found that my sister wasn’t crazy,” he said. “She was just five stages past where I was.”
Leaving “La La Land”
Koling stressed that doing the necessary research to speak up is neither easy nor comforting. “To take a stance on any issue, you need to know what you’re talking about. And that takes time and a certain amount of focus.”
Although Koling has probably done more work on racial justice than most, he identified and sympathized with pro disc golfers who may be overtaxed by other responsibilities.
He also mentioned the psychological allure of avoiding controversy. “Honestly, the ignorance-is-bliss thing really works for disc golfers,” he said. “As soon as you introduce the idea that there’s some fucked up stuff going on out there, it really takes away from the fact that we’re living in La La Land, throwing Frisbees and getting paid for it.”
“Juan Challenged Us”
For pro athletes, making a social justice statement or even a gesture such as kneeling can harm or end careers. Koling attributed much of his courage to be outspoken on race and other issues to his girlfriend’s support. He also noted the encouragement of his colleagues at Jomez.
Earlier this summer, Juan Garcia, Jomez’s Brand Director/Owner, urged Koling and Nate Sexton to speak up. “Juan challenged us. He said, ‘Hey, you guys are leaders. Make a post.’ That’s why you may have seen a Black Lives Matter post on my Instagram account and on Nate’s.”
“The Jomez guys are fully onboard,” Koling continued. “They support us as humans, not just as commentators, not just as athletes. That’s why I like Jomez so much. They are really good people.”
Koling also mentioned that Paul Ulibarri, his co-host on Jomez tournament coverage, was supportive of his stance.
Asked about future statements, Koling said that he did not have a specific plan. “It’s just going to be more of the same. If I feel like the message and the movement is starting to lose traction, I think that’s the time when my voice should get a little louder.”
With so little discussion on race in disc golf, Koling sees his role as a conversation starter. “If the one thing I can do is help start a conversation, my hope is that the conversation will lead to some good.”
Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Josh Woods, editor at Parked, is a professor of sociology at West Virginia University. He is working on a book, Emerging Sports as Social Movements: Disc Golf and the Rise of an Unknown Sport, to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2021.