Lowered Expectations: The NBA And Injustice

Dec 10, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Will Barton (5), guard Damian Lillard (0), forward Dorell Wright (1) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) wear "I Can
Dec 10, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Will Barton (5), guard Damian Lillard (0), forward Dorell Wright (1) and forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) wear "I Can /

Various violent events against people of color demand those with large platforms — especially in the NBA — to speak out against injustice. But is this fair?

It started with Donald Sterling and a secretly taped conversation disparaging the race of black men, much like the ones that played for the Los Angeles Clippers team that he owned at the time.

Then there was the death of Trayvon Martin.

Then there was the death of Eric Garner.

Dec 8, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an ” I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 8, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an ” I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports /

Then there was the passage of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 law, in the very state where the Charlotte Hornets operate and next year’s NBA All-Star game is scheduled to be held.

Then there was the death of Alton Sterling. And Philando Castile. And the police in Dallas.

When a violent and/or demeaning act happens to people of color, a small group of NBA players — most of whom are of color — give a bit of passive support. They tweet pleas for justice and the stoppage of crimes, and prayers for the families left behind. Some go a bit further and do a bit of silent protest, like wearing T-shirts.

Then they go home, their consciences assuaged because hey, they did speak out (kinda) and that was what they are supposed to do, right? They did just enough to appease the more political fans without pissing off the fans (and brands) that line their pockets. Win-win all around. Pats on the back for “taking a stand.”

To their credit, some players are more active, like the New York KnicksJoakim Noah (man, that’s weird to write!). His Noah’s Arc Foundation is dedicated to eradicating youth violence.  Others try to effect change by hosting basketball camps and other activities to keep kids off the streets and channeling their energy into something positive.  Still others prefer to speak truth to power.


But for the most part, it’s a quick mention on social media and keep it moving.

It has been said by old-school players (of course) and talking heads, especially in the wake of the death of boxing icon Muhammad Ali, that this generation of professional athletes needs to be more politically active.

Yet they acknowledge that most are nowhere near ready to take the hit on their careers, like Ali did when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War on the principle that he had no personal quarrel with the Vietnamese. He was stripped of his heavyweight titles, fined and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion.

Or when Tommie Johnson raised a Black Power fist at the 1968 Olympics. This act of black pride cost him his career and his gold medal.

Retired NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mentioned the need for athletes to be more politically active, but recognized the inherent professional dangers of doing so. “When countries use athletes to promote policy, the athletes are given little choice. But when athletes wish to stand up for causes they personally believe in, they are often condemned.”

What does that have to do with the next generation of athletes and their perceived apathy to anything outside of their hermetically sealed professional and personal spheres?

"“I think we have put them on such a pedestal from even when they’re little, we don’t even have those conversations with our young athletes,”  writer and activist Tariq Toure told Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post.“We’re not having a conversation about the politics of Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali. We’re having a conversation about how you can be the next Jordan or the next Jerry Rice. We’re not having those conversations. Sitting out doesn’t even cross their minds. They’re not even educated to have that type of radical thought.”"

Here’s the thing, though: should we be expecting this new crop to do what our elders did?

Our elder athletes came up in a different time. Back then, there were still different water fountains, doorways and eating establishments for blacks and whites. They had to deal with police dogs and barred entry to public schools by elected officials until the Civil Rights Act was passed.

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Even then, it took a while for things to get better, despite the election of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and the ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education, which paved the way for integrated schools.

This new generation came up in relative affluence. They have only known integration and freedom. Some are the offspring of, or are involved in, interracial relationships, which were once illegal. They can read about the past, or hear about it through stories handed down as the great-grandchildren of Civil Rights activists, but they don’t really get it. It applies to them in an abstract way, like high school algebra.

These recent generations also came up in the age of social media. Petitions are created and signed online. News is disseminated online. Videos of infractions are recorded on smartphones and texted/tweeted/posted/pinned, or uploaded on YouTube or Vine, or broadcast live via Periscope.

Marching and doing sit-ins for justice are foreign concepts, a throwback like some of the coveted jerseys fans collect.  For them, the Revolution will not be televised; it’ll be broadcast on Snapchat.

Their activism is one of the distance afforded by technology, and we of a certain age have to acknowledge that.

Most of the players in the NBA are under the age of 35. A significant segment is under the age of 30, and an increasing segment is 25 and under. A relative few — the one-and-dones — are still teenagers.

When you’re in your teens and 20s, there is an air of invincibility. One can look at all of these events unfolding and figure it won’t (can’t) happen to you. After all, you’re young, rich and fabulous, with high-priced attorneys and PR massagers on speed dial. You are Teflon to the violence that touches mere mortals.

That Teflon could be tested if they marched and sat in and chanted, like our elders did and sometimes still do. Their multi-million dollar contracts have specific clauses against any voluntary activities that will cause undue harm. A stray thrown object, or catching a police officer or protester at the wrong moment during an already tense situation, and a player’s career — and life — could be over in an instant. In this vein, it’s understandable why most athletes take the safer path of least resistance.

Still, wealth and fame aren’t enough to protect you from events borne of racial profiling. Ask Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell.

Better yet, ask Thabo Sefolosha.

Sefolosha, of the Atlanta Hawks, knows firsthand that the privilege afforded by his career isn’t infallible. He was with some teammates at a nightclub in New York while in town for a road game, when a fight broke out. He was accused of obstructing the police who, for his troubles, broke his leg.

Sefolosha had to miss the playoffs and barely made it back for the beginning of the next season. New York prosecutors wanted him to take a plea deal, but he refused because he knew he was innocent. He went to trial and was acquitted.

"“It’s troubling to me that with so much evidence in my support that this case would even be brought to trial and that I had to defend myself so hard to get justice,” Sefolosha said to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports. “It pains me to think about all of the innocent people who aren’t fortunate enough to have the resources, visibility and access to quality legal counsel that I have had.”"

Still, one must ask if it’s fair to expect this and future generations of players to put their careers (and money) on the line in the name of justice. Sefolosha was an anomaly in that regard. Most other players came up the hard way and their fame and wealth was earned with sacrifice, just like those who played before them.

However, with multimillions (and billions) of dollars at stake, they have a lot more to lose than their predecessors, and an even increased desire to not go back to the hardships from whence they came. They have the ability to expand their wealth and provide for future generations in ways that were unforeseen 40, 20, or even 10 years ago. Who wants to rock the boat?

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Sometimes, rocking the boat is necessary.

“There will come a time when we will have to choose between what is right, and what is easy,” Professor Dumbledore told Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Though that was a fantasy tale, the message is still valid.

It’s easier to protest on social media because posts can easily be deleted, or claims of account hacking used to cover one’s butt — the better to preserve the bank account. In an age where athletes — particularly those of color — are celebrated for the wrong reasons, now is the time to use that celebrity for the right ones.

It may take more athlete platforms to effect a radical and difficult change for the greater good, because the usual actions haven’t worked so far. It may take an athlete doing what he can, where the masses can’t, as stated by the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony to ESPN. It may take an athlete counting the costs and deciding that the legacy he wants to leave his children is one of speaking up to help others, instead of staying silent to help himself.

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Maybe then, we can all live.