NBA, NFL players find room to ‘breathe’ on social issues

Fritzie Rodriguez
NBA, NFL players find room to ‘breathe’ on social issues
Against a backdrop of anger over killings of black suspects by white police officers, LeBron James and other US athletes are making their opinions known in an arena sometimes hostile to activism

LOS ANGELES, USA – Against a backdrop of anger over killings of black suspects by white police officers, NBA star LeBron James and other US athletes are making their opinions known in an arena sometimes hostile to activism.

Deference to sponsors, fans and sports bosses has long been the norm in US sports, with athletes expected to do their stuff on court or field but stay out of the issues of the day – particularly when it comes to something as sensitive as race.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the US athletes famed for their black-gloved protest at the 1968 Olympics, are now honored for their gesture of solidarity, but at the time it sparked outrage in the Olympic movement and they were sent home from the Games.

In the 1960s, Bill Russell and others used their stature in the NBA to promote civil rights, but Muhammad Ali was vilified not only for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War but also for changing his name from Cassius Clay.

The murky, unwritten rules aren’t always enforced from above.

Whether Michael Jordan ever really said “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” in declining to back a Democratic political candidate, the NBA icon certainly maintains a reputation of shying away from discussing contentious issues.

So does Tiger Woods, another marketing juggernaut who came of age in an era when sports and politics rarely seemed to mix.

But four-time NBA Most Valuable Player James and other 21st century US sportsmen are slowly breaking that mold, and the arrival of the 24-7 news cycle and social media only makes it easier to get their views across.

“Obviously, as a society we have to do better,” James said of his decision to support the current protests by donning a T-shirt reading “I can’t breathe” for warm-ups prior to a game in Brooklyn on Monday.

The words were the last uttered by Eric Garner, the black father of six who died after he was put in a chokehold by a New York police officer.

James, toeing a fine line, said his gesture was mainly a “shout-out” to Garner’s family.

Cleveland team-mate Kyrie Irving was among the players who wore similar shirts prior to Monday’s game, which received special scrutiny thanks to the attendance of Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate.

“It’s really important to us that we stand up for a cause, especially this one,” Irving said of wearing the shirt first sported on Saturday by Chicago’s Derrick Rose.

‘Gut feeling’

NBA players aren’t the only US athletes to express their opinions on the race issue.

In the NFL, which like the NBA has a large number of African-American players, Lions running back Reggie Bush wore a top with “I can’t breathe” written on it prior to a game on Sunday, as did the Browns’ Johnson Bademosi.

Davin Joseph, a St. Louis Rams guard, wrote the same words on his cleats and tweeted it, along with the caption: “RIP Eric Garner.”

A week earlier, five Rams players angered a St. Louis police organization when they entered the field with the same “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture adopted by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white policeman shot dead an unarmed black teenager.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a measured response, saying in a statement that the league respects “Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules.”

In less than a year on the job, Silver has already negotiated rough waters of racism much closer to home, successfully steering the league through the saga of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

James was a vocal critic of Sterling when his racially charged comments became public, and James showed in 2012 that he wasn’t afraid to act on his conscience when he tweeted a picture of himself, Dwyane Wade and other Miami Heat teammates with their heads bowed under black hoodies in a team picture protesting the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

“If it feels important to me, then I respond,” James said. “There’s a lot of issues I haven’t talked about. For me it’s about knowledge, it’s about the gut feeling.”

Social media effect

Bob Dorfman, an endorsement expert and executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising, told CNN that in the age of the Internet, players probably couldn’t be as apolitical as Jordan managed to be.

“Just having a presence in social media, it’s virtually impossible not to share an opinion,” Dorfman said.

In James’ case, team-mate Jarrett Jack believes it’s just a question of a man “very comfortable with his voice.”

“As you get older, you understand you’re a citizen of the world, and it’s not just what you say about basketball that counts,” Jack told USA Today. “It’s what you say about the world and your environment.” –

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.