Athletes have always been among the most polarizing people on Earth. They have the mostly unwavering attention of the media. Many of them are known in all corners of the world. These past few days, those same athletes, mainly of the NBA and NFL have been testing how influential they can be when stepping outside of the world of sports.
One week ago, a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer for the strangulation of a unarmed black man by the name of Eric Garner. The outrage following the decision has been seen nationwide already before a handful of players took it to the next level. A handful of players from both the NFL and the NBA wore shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” emblazoned on them as a response. It started with Derrick Rose this past Saturday night in Chicago, then continued with Reggie Bush Sunday in Detroit even made it to the West Coast with Kobe Bryant and his Lakers teammates donning shirts on Tuesday. The most notable gesture came Monday night in Brooklyn, not far where Garner’s murder took place, when the world’s most polarizing athlete LeBron James walked onto the court sporting an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. ESPN had a field day with the story (as they do with just about anything James does). LeBron handled every question asked with a level head that displayed his social awareness and his desire to support Garner’s family in this difficult time.
This comes on the heels of a much more controversial sports protest against a major social issue. On November 30, five members came out of the tunnel before a home game with their hands held up in surrender, clearly in reference to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The act sparked controversy with the St. Louis Police Department and they immediately demanded an apology. To the credit of both the league and the Rams organization, they refused to issue an apology or punish the players in any way. I tend to be very critical of the NFL but I am genuinely proud of the league’s decision to let these players speak their mind without any repercussions.
These also are not just uninformed athletes deciding to get involved. Rose pointed out that some of these athletes can relate to these issues. In an article from Bleacher Report, the Bulls’ guard stated, “I grew up and I saw it every day,” Rose said. “Not killing or anything like that, but I saw the violence every day. Just seeing what can happen. If anything, I’m just trying to change the kids’ minds across the nation and it starts here.” I am glad that these athletes are taking the time to speak their minds and open up about the world around them. It is rare that we see this side of them because of how genuinely obsessed our nation is with their performance on the court or field.
It may not be much, but it is a start. It presents an uncommon source of spreading social awareness. You do not have to agree with all the statements these athletes are making to recognize the importance of what they are doing. This affects everyone. LeBron said it himself in an interview with ESPN, “It’s not a [Cavaliers] thing; it’s a worldly thing…. As a society we have to do better, we have to be better for one another, no matter what race you are.” That speaks volumes to me about what this means to athletes. Hopefully, we will continue to see more athletes speaking their mind about pressing social issues. Too often, they are relegated to an observer in these cases because of the role they play in representing an organization. I still have hope that this could lead to a positive change as well, but only time with tell.