Our nation still hasn’t finished its conversation about what constitutes police brutality, particularly when it comes to actions by white police officers that result in the death of unarmed black men. And as this conversation continues to play out in courtrooms, various media outlets and street-level demonstrations, some athletes are speaking their minds.
It started with St. Louis Rams players walking out of the locker room with their hands raised in a “hands up, don’t shoot” posture meant to evoke the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent near-chaotic events in Ferguson, Mo. It continued with professional basketball players wearing shirts saying “I Can’t Breathe” to protest Eric Garner’s death from choking during an arrest in New York City.
Boys’ and girls’ basketball teams from a California high school were barred from a tournament two weeks ago for refusing to uphold the tournament’s ban on “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. The ban was later lifted, but not in time for the girls’ team to re-enter the tournament.
Some groups and fans — most notably the St. Louis Police Officers Association — demanded an apology for such actions. So far, neither the National Football League nor National Basketball Association has punished its players, in both cases citing their right to free speech.
But even beyond a constitutional right lies the knowledge that in the wrong setting, professional athletes could wind up just like Brown or Garner.
Damon Harrison is a defensive tackle for the New York Jets. He weighs 350 pounds and stands 6-foot-4 — an inch taller and the same weight as Garner.
Datone Jones is a defensive end for the Green Bay Packers. He weighs 285 and stands 6-4 — the same height and just seven pounds lighter than Brown.
Perhaps neither Harrison nor Jones need be afraid while on the gridiron, nor even on the streets of the cities in which they play. But take them out of their helmets and uniforms and drop them on the street in some random city or town far from their home stadiums.
In that situation, Harrison and Jones are just two guys no one is likely to recognize who look an awful lot like two black men recently killed by white police officers.
When NFL and NBA players hold up their hands or wear “I can’t breathe” T-shirts — an act many non-athletes, including some federal government employees, have also done in the last month, it should be noted — they’re not doing it to rile up racial tensions. They’re not doing it as part of a general assault against the police institution either, just as protesting Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children isn’t an attack on Christianity.
When players protest, they do so because they know they could find themselves in similar situations as Garner and Brown.
In some cases, it goes a step farther. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in February 2012, Zimmerman claimed Martin wearing a hooded sweatshirt made him look suspicious and threatening.
Several Miami Heat players, including superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, responded by wearing hoodies and posing for photos. When asked about it, Wade told the Associated Press, “This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies.”
Professional basketball and football players tend to be very big and very strong. In both leagues, the majority of players are also black.
That means incidents like the deaths of Brown and Garner are sometimes felt on a deeply personal level that fans and perhaps white Americans in general just don’t understand.
Both NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA commissioner Adam Silver seem to get this. That’s likely one reason no punishments ever happened.
There is also, of course, a public relations element to this as well. It would look really, really bad for a league composed almost entirely of white owners and a white commissioner — as is the case for both the NBA and NFL — to punish black athletes for speaking out about white cops killing black men.
The counter-argument is that Brown and Garner had just committed crimes and died resisting arrest. The events that led to Brown’s death are unclear and contradictory at best, but video shows Jones was indeed arrested for illegally selling loose cigarettes.
There are those who would prefer athletes not speak out at all. They want athletes to do nothing more than play their sports, maybe sell a few sneakers or sports drinks, then shut up.
But that desire to whitewash — pun very much intended — athletics ignores the long history of civil activism undertaken by black athletes in this country. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell and tennis great Arthur Ashe are just three examples from a long list of athletes who’ve used their celebrity to speak out about racism and other issues they perceived to be plaguing our society.
If anything, athletes staying quiet is the newer phenomenon. There’s some debate as to whether Michael Jordan ever actually said “Republicans buy sneakers” when asked about his lack of political activism, but that doesn’t hide how little Jordan did despite being arguably America’s most publicized professional athlete.
So perhaps everyone could lay off those athletes who’ve chosen to speak out about what they perceive as a major problem in this country. They act with the knowledge that in the wrong place, they or their children could be the next Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.
And for those who fear the example these athletes set for young fans, consider this: widespread looting, destruction of property and rioting ensued when a grand jury chose not to indict officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s death.
So far, all NFL and NBA players have encouraged people to do is hold up their hands and wear T-shirts.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.