By Dakari Thomas
Members of the National Basketball Association (NBA) have been extremely reluctant to speak up on social issues pertaining to the black community. We’ve been left in the dark whenever they were asked to shed light on their perspectives regarding political scandals or national outcry.
Athletes with the most recognizable faces in our country did not want to use their platform to express their views, which is cowardly at face value. How can athletes that benefit from local support not speak up when locals are in despair?
The sad truth is that professional basketball players generally do not care enough or do not want to damage any business relationships they hold.
There have been exceptions—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell were promoters for social change. Abdul-Jabbar accepted a Cultural Ambassador of the United States position after years of being an activist and best-selling author.
Russell was very vocal during his time as a player, speaking out about social injustices and racial prejudice. Most notably, he once praised Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
By and large, though, social commentary has not been something quintessential superstars of the league have taken by the horns.
This changed drastically in 2014 when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape telling his mistress not to bring black people—including Hall of Famer Magic Johnson—to his games. He received a lifetime ban from the NBA and was publically called out on many media outlets by the game’s biggest stars.
“There’s no room for that in our league,” Lebron James said.
Later that year, Eric Garner was choked to death in broad daylight by a police officer because he was suspected of selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) from packs without tax stamps. With the officer’s arm around his neck, Garner was heard screaming “I can’t breathe,” which became a phrase symbolizing the protest against police brutality.
Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose highlighted the rampant support from NBA athletes by donning pre-game warm-up shirts with Garner’s last words on them. It was a true show of empathy that somewhat humanized these superstars in the public eye.
Then, at the 2016 ESPY awards, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul took the stage at the beginning of the show to promote social change. Anthony opened with a clear message: “The urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”
They weren’t asked to speak. They reached out to the show’s producers only hours before. Their unexpected intro was very well-received, as the athletes were commended for using eloquence and bravado.
“Outspoken” is the only word that could describe the new faces of our league, as being outspoken has become commonplace throughout sports.
We need to elevate expectations on athletes who transcend sports. There are few once-in-a-generation athletes that can appeal to both a 10-year-old black kid who lives on the southside of Chicago and a 60-year-old white man who lives in Beverly Hills.
Michael Jordan, for example, has been completely silent about the senseless killings that happen every year over his shoes. Throughout his career, he distanced himself from black culture, yet is still heralded in the community.
A well-spoken and intelligent black man who is viewed as royalty in America by all demographics is extremely rare. Jordan could have resounding effects on the nation that can’t be measured by any statistic.
Having widespread appeal can change lives by affecting the perceptions of people who would never cross paths or connect through empathy. No one wants to understand others’ struggles unless it fits their narrative.
That 10-year-old black kid doesn’t believe there are white people that aren’t racist, because that’s all he sees and hears in his small world view. That 60-year-old white man has never spoken to an uplifting and intelligent black man when he has only seen murder rates in Chicago on Fox News.
Changes in perception will never happen if transcendent people play it safe. You must ruffle the feathers of some to empower many.