Should we really be lauding LeBron James?
Michael Jordan was famous for eschewing any and all opportunities to express his political views. He's credited (though perhaps apocryphally) with quipping that "Republicans buy sneakers, too." Tiger Woods, even at the peak of his public profile, was similarly known for keeping his opinions under wraps.
MJ and Tiger, of course, have been relentlessly contrasted over the last couple of weeks with Derrick Rose and LeBron James, NBA superstars who each recently donned "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts in honor of the late Eric Garner. Garner's death, the result of an illegal chokehold used by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo - along with a grand jury's subsequent failure to indict same for what a medical examination ruled to be a homicide - set off a nationwide wave of protests. By wearing the shirts, Rose and James placed themselves in the middle of that movement.
Naturally, the media has been falling all over itself with effusive praise for athletes for standing up and doing their part to fight for justice. Bloggers and tweeters have voiced their support; radio and TV personalities have likewise approved; even the President of the United States chimed in, comparing Rose and James to socially active sporting legends like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe.
We're on the precipice of something big, all of this suggests. With support from cultural icons the likes of two NBA MVPs, a large-scale movement is afoot, we are told. Awareness of Eric Garner's plight is growing, and with it, society's eyes will soon be opened to a serious systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
Except, however, there's one little problem. There seems to be very little in the way of substance behind this so-called movement.
Few, if any athletes seem to understand, or at least be able to articulate clearly in their public remarks, exactly what we're (supposed to be) talking about. That James and Rose wore the shirts during their pre-game warmups is significant, and the act itself is probably laudable. But after making that one gesture, both men have followed up with some head-scratchingly strange comments.
LeBron's Dec. 8 postgame remarks suggest that he was unwilling or unable to explain the larger societal factors that influenced Garner's killing, and instead of discussing systemic racism or police brutality, he instead explained the shirt as simply his message to the Garner family:
"It was a message to the family. That I'm sorry for their loss, sorry to his wife. That's what it's about. I think everybody else gets caught up in everything else besides who's really feeling it, and that's the family. That's what it's about."
Rose's explanation for the shirt was even stranger. Not only did he eschew discussing any real sociopolitical issues, he also pretty egregiously belied a basic misunderstanding of the Garner incident. According to Bleacher Report, he discussed the incident in terms of changing the minds of children about violence, which seems a bit incongruous with a discussion of a 29-year-old white man killing an unarmed 43-year-old black man:
"I grew up and I saw it every day. 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."
The truth is that expressing an opinion solely about Eric Garner, in a vacuum, is a facile and downright trendy thing to do. There isn't much debate, at least among level-headed people, that Garner's death was wrong and it's indicative of a larger societal problem. Pew Research survey data shows that Americans who favor Pantaleo's prosecution outnumber those who oppose it by nearly 3:1. When was the last time that proportion of Americans agreed on anything? But there's more meat on the bone here than one homicide.
James' and Rose's failures to identify (or, if their agents had anything to do with it, acknowledge) the real causes of and effects stemming from police brutality have to give you pause. Why, exactly, are we so willing to praise them if the entirety of their stance is reduced to a well-timed fashion statement?
The more cynical reading of the warmup shirt storyline is one of a forced PR stunt. Consider LeBron's situation for a moment. He discovers, either from conversations with others around the league or through the media, that Rose plans to wear the "I Can't Breathe" shirt before a game. He realizes that, before long, there's bound to be a social media campaign for him to wear one, too. He either gets out ahead of things as the best player in the league, or his fans or the media pressures him into doing so later.
One of LeBron's greatest strengths as a player is his foresight. He has an innate ability to sense plays unfolding, thinking three moves ahead, knowing instantly what to do and when. The "I Can't Breathe" movement simply presented James with an opportunity to sense ... an opportunity. The (latest) decision is made. He picks up the phone and finds the necessary apparel ASAP.
Truth is, both LeBron and Rose could have said more. Expressing grief over Eric Garner's death was the humane thing to do, especially for players of their statures. No one should criticize them for doing it, but an exploration of the deeper, more critical questions at issue would not only have raised overall awareness, but it also might have led to a wider conversation and greater understanding.
No one expects our professional athletes to be subject matter experts on these issues; they're mind-numbingly complicated and interwoven with one another. Racism, police brutality, income inequality, decaying infrastructures in our cities, drugs, violence, incarceration, corrupt government - they're all part of the same picture, all part of the societal woes that we seem paralyzed to meaningfully discuss, let alone do anything about.
But when an athlete does make a statement, literal or symbolic - whether it's the St. Louis Rams or Cleveland Brown Andrew Hawkins - they should understand that they are inserting themselves into a discussion, and they should come prepared to foster a lasting impact that resonates long after the act is completed. To do that requires an understanding of (and willingness to take on) the underlying problem that gives rise to the protest in the first place.
Unlike with Ali, Russell and Ashe before them, James and Rose have much more to lose by being activists. To tell the story of inequality in America is to risk biting the corporate hand that feeds them. In fact, one might even say that LeBron and D-Rose are part of the problem. James has already logged some $450 million in career earnings, per a Forbes estimate, while Rose in 2012 signed a single Adidas contract reportedly worth $200 million.
This isn't to say that either player is responsible for inequality, or that they are wrong for maximizing their incomes. But while they're raking in nine-figure paydays, many of their "customers" are forever trapped in a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity which ultimately begets violence.
So, yes, it was nice to see James and Rose put on those t-shirts. And no, their actions were not meaningless. But let's be real here. Ali opposed the Vietnam War while much of America was caught up in pro-war sentiment. Russell fought against racism during a time when the nation, and his home city of Boston, in particular, were deeply divided. Ashe worked tirelessly to spread awareness about HIV and AIDS while many turned a blind eye.
That's why it was at least somewhat odd when President Obama elevated James and Rose to among those three lofty historical figures. Singing from a chorus of millions who already opposed a killing that was, frankly, obviously unjust? That part is easy. Advocating for real change is far more difficult. (In fairness to James, he has been a vocal figure on other recent issues - including the ouster of Donald Sterling and George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin. And Rose just recently donated $1 million to support an after-school program for Chicago youths. Both players have surely done a lot for others.)
But to accept their actions on Eric Garner unconditionally, without even a drop of skepticism, is a bridge too far. We have the right to push a little harder, to ask for a little more - mainly because LeBron James and Derrick Rose can breathe. They'll never have to worry about having to sell cigarettes on the street just to get by, or being hassled by police just for existing. They don't live that life.
James, even when pressed to elaborate on his feelings post-Garner, continues to balk. According to USA Today, he was asked to follow up on his Garner comments and discuss the "larger message" behind them, yet he demurred:
"How larger can it be than to pay respects to the family? It doesn't get any larger than that. Obviously our society needs to do better. Like I said before, violence isn't the answer and retaliation isn't the solution. As a society, we know we have to get better. It's not going to be done in one day ... We all have to do better."
To say that "obviously our society needs to do better" is ostensibly correct but provides little in the way of substance. James comes off as concerned, but not deeply versed in the real issues when he says that "retaliation isn't the solution," as if to imply that rioting in the wake of the Garner decision is unwise. It's easy not to riot when your life is comfortable and your net worth is in the hundreds of millions. But does James understand the deeply rooted frustration that leads to violent responses? Can he put himself inside the tortured minds of those who feel an urge to retaliate? His position, or lack thereof, is dubious, to say the least.
The time has come to reexamine our collective barometer for social activism. In this modern era, in which ideas spread quickly and viral movements can sprout overnight, our standards must be different. Our stars are capable of doing more. Even MJ and Tiger, self-serving creatures to be sure, had they had reached peak stardom in 2014, couldn't have been apolitical beings today. Our society wouldn't have let them. We would have demanded more.
Just as athletes have the right to be activists, we have the right to respectfully ask follow-up questions; we have the right to inquire as to their motives. In the end, the more questions are asked, the more the answers will come, and that can only be seen as a good thing.
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