Wai Sallas takes a historical look at athletes as activists, with today’s NBA and NFL stars taking a big step forward in the progress for what’s right and equal.
Michael Brown lay on the street as his last reserves of oxygen slowly escaped his body and blood began to pool underneath him, bystanders looked on not knowing what to make of what they saw.
In the coming months, people would say he had his hands up asking not to be shot, others would say he rushed Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson, prompting Wilson to unload 12 shots out of self-defense.
A month earlier, Eric Garner put his hands up as New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garners neck, slowly bringing him to the ground, and ultimately his death.
Four months after Garner could not muster the air or strength to utter “I can’t breath” for the twelfth time, professional athletes are grabbing the spotlight.
Instead of cultivating the me-first attitude that has permeated professional sports for decades, today’s athletes are speaking in unison honoring a time long passed and toeing the line between athleticism and activism.
Forty-seven years before Garner and Brown became national headlines, Muhammad Ali sat in the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union in Cleveland. Flanked by Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell, Ali stood behind his religion as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Green Bay Hall of Fame Defensive End Willie Davis would call it a watershed moment in the union of sports and civil rights:
“There’s always been a period where something happens that causes this country to struggle, be it racial or whatever. I look back and see that Ali Summit as one of those events. I’m very proud to participate.”
The 60s were turbulent times for every American. The Cuban Missile Crisis and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination marred the early 60s. Malcolm X was killed in New York in 1965. The end of the decade saw the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Jr.
Riots and protests filled the street for the entire decade and those social agendas overflowed to the world of sports.
In 1965, African-American football players refused to play in the AFL All-Star Game in New Orleans due to racism and discrimination in that city. In 1966 Jim Brown founded the Black Economic Union. The organization had offices in Los Angeles, Kansas City, Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Cleveland and was founded to help economic development, education and other social issues within the black community.
Athletes of that era made you aware of the inequalities that stretched throughout America. Alcindor boycotted the 1968 Olympic Games. At those games, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists to protest racism and discrimination. Ali became the face of the anti-Vietnam movement that would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.
Social activism did not stop in the 70s. People like Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and Bill Walton used their sports stardom to raise awareness for a multitude of issues.
In 1970, Activist Gil-Scott Heron first recorded his poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
“The savviest critique of the disengaged and disengaging character of broadcast news—and the crisis of commercialism,” The Nation’s John Nichols said.
“Scott-Heron’s lyrics demanded that serious young people start thinking, start studying, start creating—and he made no secret of his determination that all this activity needed to be fused with activism. He was always challenging, and exciting. Even at the darkest and most difficult stage of his four-decades-long career, Scott-Heron could reach heights—intellectual and musical—that few artists have even imagined.”
As 60s and 70s activism began to make room for the 80s and the need to make money, new ideals started to take hold. In an article in the New York Times from 1986, Jeff Pullen saw the writing on the wall.
“Commitment and dedication to an ideal, philosophy or social problem has been replaced in the 80’s by one-day media events, such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hands Across America, which I suspect would raise nothing if there wasn’t a party attached.”
The 1980s – 2000s
The athletes of the 80s 90s and 00s were more concerned with bigger contracts and endorsement deals. They were more more focused on Wall Street than what was going on on Main St.
The two most iconic players of that era were Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Both were and have been tight-lipped when it came to anything that may upset Madison Avenue.
Back in 1990, Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat and former mayor of Charlotte, was running against Sen. Jesse Helms. Helms opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and allegedly whistled “Dixie,” to purposefully antagonize a black member of Congress in the elevator with him.
Gantt’s supporters asked Jordan to back them, but Jordan declined, later joking to a friend, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
In 2008, Golf Channel Analyst Kelly Tilghman said young players who want to challenge Tiger Woods should “lynch him in a back alley.” Tilghman quickly apologized and Woods accepted but for those who fought hard to give equal rights and access to golf courses for people like Woods, it was a slap in the face.
“As an individual for social change or any of that kind of [stuff, Woods] is terrible,” said Brown.
The athletes of the 80s, 90s and 00s knew all too well what would happen had you stepped out of the box.
In 1991, Chicago Bull Craig Hodges wore a dashiki when the team visited the White House. Hodges criticized the NBA for the lack of African-American head coaches. At the time, the league only had two. He also suggested players should boycott a playoff game.
The Bulls cut him after the 1992 NBA Finals. Despite being one of the NBA’s best three point shooters in league history, he never played again.
In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf refused to stand during the national anthem. He said the flag was a symbol of oppression and the United States had a long history of tyranny. He said standing to the national anthem would therefore conflict with his Islamic beliefs.
Denver traded him in the off-season. He played only 3 more seasons.
Today in the NFL
We have not seen a rise like this amongst professional athletes since the 60s and 70s. The NFL and NBA have witnessed role players, bench players and stars all stand up for Brown and Garner.
The Sunday after a Ferguson Grand Jury declined to indict former officer Wilson, St. Louis Rams players came out of the tunnel with their hands up, a nod to the rallying cry of Brown protesters, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
The Rams continued the protest a week later Kenny Britt took the field with the names “Michael Brown” and “Trayvon Martin” written on his cleats. His teammate Jared Cook had the words “I can’t breathe,” written on his wristband. Teammate Davin Joseph had the same phrase written on his cleats. In Detroit, Reggie Bush had I can’t breath scrawled across his chest as he warmed up before the Lions took on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“Honestly, I’ve always been the quiet kid. I’ve always been the one who’s reserved, to kind of sit back and not really get into politics and things like that,” said Bush, whose mom has been a police officer for 20 years. “But I don’t know why I just felt some kind of … I guess the situation just touched me.”
Bush’s coach, Jim Caldwell sees the similarities between what’s happening now and the social awareness that defined the 60s.
“I grew up in the ’60s, where everybody was socially conscious,” Caldwell said. “I believe in it. I’d be a hypocrite if I stood up here and told you any differently, because more than likely, some of those protests that Dr. (Martin Luther) King and some of the others that took a part in non-violent protests, is the reason why I’m standing here in front of you today.”
Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi also wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt before game time, as did San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram. Then there was Brandian Ross of the Raiders, who came out during player introductions without a helmet and with his hands up high, and Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker, who raised his hands up after a sack.
“It’s not an us-against-them thing,” Bademosi said. “It’s about us standing in solidarity with those of us who know what’s going on.”
Today in the NBA
In the NBA, King James, the best player in basketball has joined the collective voices calling for change. Monday night, with Prince William and Princess Kate taking in a game at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Jarrett Jack, Kyrie Irving all wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and others have stepped in and joined the call for awareness.
The first to bring the message to the NBA was Derrick Rose:
“I grew up in it,” Rose said. “I saw it every day. Not killing or anything, but I saw the violence every day and just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the thoughts of the kids’ minds across the nation, but it starts here.”
It would be easy for Rose to take a back seat and let others drive. A statue of Jordan sits outside the United Center where Rose calls home. Rose grew up in Chicago and knows first hand you can still be loved and idolized despite saying silent on issues involving race and politics:
“My biggest concern is the kids. I know what they’re thinking right now. I was one of them kids. When you live in an area like that and you don’t got any hope, and police are treating you any way. I’m not saying all police [officers] are treating kids bad, but when you live in an area like that, it gives you another reason to be bad. My biggest concern are the kids and making sure that my son grows up in a safe environment.”
Notably, it is Rose’s duties as a father that have made this such an important issue for him:
“That’s one of the reasons why I wore the shirt,” he said. “I’m a parent now. Probably two years ago, it probably would have been different. I probably would not have worn the shirt. But now I’m a dad, it just changed my outlook on life, period. I don’t want my son growing up being scared of the police or even having that thought on his mind that something like that could happen.”
Eric Garner’s six children probably look at police differently than many of us do. Their lives are forever altered by the actions of civil servants trusted with protecting and serving. James wanted to honor Garner’s family with his shirt. Others want to use these last two decisions as a springboard to get active and start to have a say in which the roads of our worlds begin to wind.
It appears that this is no passing fad, but a step forward in the progress for what’s right and equal.
“As a society we have to get better and it’s not going to get done in one day. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We all have to do better,” James said.
Today The Revolution is being televised.
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Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports