Sun | Oct 22, 2017

NBA stars right to protest?

Published:Friday | December 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM
AP Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant warms up in an 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirt before an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday.
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More and more NBA stars are wearing 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirts while warming up before games. Those were said to be the last words Eric Garner, who died after New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo applied a chokehold on him.

A state grand jury recently chose not to indict the officer, which sparked wide-scale protests across the United States. Those who have been wearing the 'I Can't Breathe' T-shirts, showing solidarity with the Garner family, include NBA mega stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Derrick Rose.

Garner was, of course, black, as are the NBA players who have chosen this form of quiet protest. Mr Pantaleo is white. Their decision to wear the T-shirts has been met with mixed reactions. Some have sung their praises for using their status to keep the issue on the front burner, while others believe sports personalities ought not to be this involved in such a highly sensitive social issue.

questionable cases

The Pantaleo case, of course, came about approximately a week after a grand jury found no criminality in the actions of another white police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, in Ferguson. Of course, in February 2012, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in another highly questionable case of a white licensed firearm holder against a black man. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder.

These incidents have incensed the black community in the United States, to the point where sports icons, who normally stay out of such issues, are now silently demonstrating their own protests. Enough, they are saying, is enough.

Where are you on this? Do you feel that NBA stars should be doing this? The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, is not too happy about what is happening. He told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "I respect 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."

Wearing shirts with such potentially inflammatory remarks, therefore, is against "attire rules" in the NBA, but in all likelihood, Silver will let this be. He himself is white, and if he comes down too hard against the black NBA players for voicing their protest, he knows his actions could be seen to be anti-black and, therefore, racist. He doesn't want this cross to bear.

LeBron James has been most vocal on this. Asked about his decision to wear the T-shirt, he said, "It was a message to the family that I'm sorry for their loss, sorry to his wife, and that's what it's about. ... I think everybody gets caught up in everything else besides who's really feeling it, and that's the family."

James' social conscience has long been active. One only has to look back on a photo he tweeted with himself and his then Miami teammates in March 2012 that showed them with heads bowed and wearing hooded sweatshirts in support of Trayvon Martin.

Personally, I admire what the black players are doing. Yes, the USA is "a country of laws", as President Barack Obama said at the time, even while giving the impression that he, too, was concerned about the outcome. When the president said if he had a son, he would probably look like Trayvon, it is clear that he was touched by all this, too.

Sports stars are human

Sports stars aren't robots. The fact that they can shoot hoops or hit balls doesn't automatically make them devoid of social awareness. As long as the protests are peaceful, they have as much right as anybody else to voice their concerns.

Some say that by wearing these T-shirts, it is suggesting that LeBron and company are flying in the face of the legal system in America. The law did, indeed, speak, but where does it say in the USA constitution that you have to agree with the verdict of the legal system?

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of killing his girlfriend in the 1990s, a host of people, both black and white, spoke out openly that he literally got away with murder. So if black people want to wear T-shirts that say, in effect, 'we are concerned with the spate of questionable killings by whites against blacks', we have to respect and admire that.

n Orville Higgins is a sports journalist and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN FM. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.