ABOVE PHOTO: In this Sunday Nov. 30, 2014, file photo, St. Louis Rams players, from left; Stedman Bailey (12), Tavon Austin (11), Jared Cook, (89) Chris Givens (13) and Kenny Britt (81) raise their arms in awareness of the events in Ferguson, Mo., as they walk onto the field during introductions before an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in St. Louis. Time will tell whether the “hands-up” gesture during pregame introductions will leave a lasting memory or simply go down as a come-and-go moment in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Either way, it certainly isn’t the first time high-profile athletes have used their platform to make political statements. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson, File)
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
The lack of indictments against the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the growing number of unarmed African-Americans being shot down by law enforcement officials has sparked protests throughout the country.
Some of the demonstrations have included protestors lying down in malls, blocking highways, wearing t-shirts saying, “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe” while conducting “die-ins” outside of professional sports venues as well.
Led by the energy of young activists and the wisdom of established Civil Rights leadership, the groundswell to end police brutality is growing into to a mass movement reminiscent of the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s.
Among the more surprising groups of participants in these protests has been the Black athlete.
Their participation is surprising because this particular group of athletes grew up hearing Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers, too” mantra and have been conditioned not to take a stand on issues of social issues for fear of losing millions in endorsements.
While at one time such gestures as Tommie Smith-John Carlos’s Black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics and Muhammad Ali refusing to accept his induction into the U.S. Army would have been commonplace, the Black athlete of the Post-Civil Rights movement has for the most part, silent or indifferent when it comes to issues of race.
Over the years, Jordan and O.J. Simpson, who is now serving time in prison, made millions in endorsements because they chose to remain race neutral or simply refused to answer questions regarding race. Their silence ultimately became part of the blueprint for Black athletes aspiring to success beyond the athletic field.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, who organized a group photo of his then-Miami Heat teammates in hooded sweatshirts to protest the death of Trayvon Martin, and Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant joined members of the NBA’s New York Nets, Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin, Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, Cleveland Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi, and the entire Georgetown University Men’s Basketball squad in wearing t-shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe”, which were Garner’s last words as New York Police Officer Daniel Panteleo choked him to death.
Earlier in the season, members of the Washington NFL team came out before a game doing the “Hands up, Don’t Shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri and two weeks ago five members of the St. Louis Rams, Ferguson’s home team, did the same.
Of course, the reaction from more than few fans and sports talk show hosts was the old “just shut up and play.” The St. Louis Police Officers Association was so put off by the Rams protest that they called on the NFL to discipline the players.
Even Bryant got some of the vitriol. A radio talking head, CBS college basketball analyst Doug Gottlieb said of Bryant on Twitter: “Kobe Bryant lives in Newport Coast, takes a chopper to the games, made $60m last 2 years…the struggle is real #ICANTBREATH.”
Although Gottlieb’s attempt at snark has been deleted, it was another way of saying that as a Black man who makes millions of dollars playing a game, he should just be grateful to earn his money and leave the political statements to others.
Speaking out against police officers killing young unarmed African-American men is not on the approved list of things for Black athletes to do. If Bryant had praised police officers and wore an LAPD hat and a shirt that said God Bless America, he would be a hero and the toast of the FOX News propaganda circuit.
In a piece he wrote for Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column in Sports Illustrated, Bademosi addressed this contention, saying that certain things are far too important to remain silent about.
“This issue as I see it—police killings as a symptom of the systematic and historical devaluing of Black lives—seemed too big to ignore,” he said in his piece. “The NFL wants to make players public lives conform to its standards. But when exceptional issues call for us to speak our minds, the league and the fans need to see us as men, with our own opinions and the freedom to express them.”
It was that form of consciousness during the Civil Rights Movement that motivated Black football players to threaten a boycott the American Football League All-Star game because of racism in New Orleans. It was Smith and Carlos raising their fists in the air on the gold medal stand in solidarity with African-Americans experiencing injustice.
In the words of the Talking Heads: “Same as it ever was.”