PLAYERS INSPIRED BY PLAYERS:
Advancing Social Justice through the words and actions of activist-athletes
Asaya Plumly, January 2015
We usually have a warped version of the way things used to be. I heard somewhere that the more you access memories, the less accurate they become. With that in mind, and as far as I’m concerned, the early 90’s were a fantastic time to be a kid. According to my mind’s eye, as a pre-teen in a foreign country, my childhood was filled with skittles, rollerblading, learning how to flirt with girls and a whole lot of basketball.
However, I truly believe that I did in fact spend hours on the basketball court. Usually I played with other military brats, but almost as often it was just me, the ball and the hoop. I like to think I did this out of pure dedication and love of the game – a young boy with dreams of basketball glory and the wherewithal to work for it. This may have been true in an oversimplified way. What is equally true is that a driving force behind that dedication came from a childhood dream that if I stayed on that court just long enough I could manifest my own real life role in Michael Jordan’s Playground.
We’ve all seen the movie, right? By all, I mean all of us who were obsessed with Michael Jordan (MJ) and worked in tandem with our friends to get our hands on any VHS tape that had our leading man MJ plastered on it. For those who don’t care to remember, the movie came out in 1991 and documented MJ’s rise to his first finals victory alongside the narrative of a young African American kid having similar struggles as MJ did when he was a cut from his high school basketball team.
There’s a memorable scene between the kid and MJ in which I replace myself as the kid like this: I play basketball all day with my friends, being involved but not necessarily the most impactful kid on the court. As a result, I stay after everyone else goes home for dinner. I shoot bricks until sun starts to drop below the high rise apartments. I can’t allow myself to go home on a brick so I take one last shot. A swish! Cue the 90’s inspirational keyboard jam. Cue the ball rolling to the feet of Michael Jordan who gracefully picks it up and says,
“Nice shot, I see you’ve been practicing,” he says with a championship smile. Speechless, I gaze in amazement. “I know you like to play alone. You don’t mind if I shoot with you, do ya?” he continues. In anticipation of this moment, I have not only been practicing my jump shot, but also the look I would give MJ when this very moment would happen. It’s a look of calm bewilderment. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He schools me for what feels like hours until my parents send my older brother to summon me home and he finds me lying in the middle of the court, staring into the heavens with a glaze of satisfaction over my face. And scene.
I don’t have the resources to confirm this, but I feel like it’s safe to say that millions of other kids have had eerily similar delusions. At the time, MJ was climbing a long road to not only the top of the NBA, but to the top of a billion dollar industry as well. His influence eventually dwarfing any held by his contemporaries in all of sports. Kids around the world consumed him with a fervor.
For many people surrounding my age, Michael Jordan played a not so insignificant role in our understanding of the world. Certainly for those whose worlds were crowded with sneakers and playgrounds – not only did he set the standard of greatness, but he was also packaged to us as a representation of wholesome success. He was flash, brilliance and hard work, all wrapped up in a handsome persona. None of his off court fumbles ever penetrated the psyche of an eleven year old kid.
Probably, I benefited from an aspect of this image- the part that emphasized dedication and work ethic. The part of the story that used his charisma and accomplishments to push the idea that success requires hard work, every day. The part that made for such great posters- “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” It’s hard for a 4th grader to argue with logic like that.
Michael Jordan taught many kids many different lessons. The one with deepest repercussions, however, wasn’t his ability to come through at clutch moments but his absence from any matter of social justice.
Of course, he was not without plenty of opportunity to display any kernel of moral courage during and since his rise to fame. In the early 90’s, while I was being consoled by Wilson Phillips over a breakup and Michael Jordan was building the foundation of a dynasty, the US military was busy developing the Gulf War, apartheid was coming to a close and NAFTA was being signed.
Carpet bombing and trade agreements may be an unrealistic place to imagine MJ taking a stand. However, in the 90s, we also saw the uprisings in Los Angeles over police brutality and Magic Johnson was making headlines by announcing he had contracted HIV. These were two pivotal moments in history and two occasions we heard little if anything from not only MJ but the majority of the well-known sports figures.
Perhaps the defining example of MJ’s dedicated social ambivalence was in 1990 when asked if he would support black Democrat Harvey Gnatt in his attempt to unseat Sen. Jesse Helms, (a man who opposed making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday). Jordan declined. Reportedly telling a friend later, “Republicans buy sneakers too” (King, 2014).
This statement has come to epitomize what many consider a failure of MJ to take full (or any) advantage of his worldwide popularity to shed light on the many social-political problems of the day. Almost 25 years later, with his industry firmly intact, he would donate to the Obama campaign. (Granderson, 2012) He would return to his ambivalence by not contributing in 2008, while many other athletes such as LeBron James (LBJ) and Vince Carter did (Granderson, 2012).
Regardless of their decision to engage in civic dialogue, professional athletes have a meaningful impact on our culture. Whether they take the social ambivalence route of MJ or the loud and proud approach of Muhammad Ali, their choices have far reaching effects on a population obsessed with sports. For me, now fully outgrown of my Air Jordan’s, the point really isn’t why wouldn’t MJ support Harvery Gnatt but what role can professional athletes play in creating learning environments for the student athletes who aspire to be like them?
Today, fortunately, we don’t have to search very far to find examples of prominent athletes sharing in the legacy of Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others. A significant number of athletes and star athletes are deeply involved in community issues both on and off the court. The Jordan wanna-be’s of today have plenty of well-rounded role models to choose from. I believe, that over recent months, the actions taken by these high-profile athletes can have profound benefits for people working towards social change.
When the non indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo sparked a national outrage over police brutality, basketball players, such as, Derrick Rose and LBJ, accessed their humanity and put it on display for millions to see. Derrick Rose wore a shirt reading “I Can’t Breathe” on December 6 in a game against the league’s best Golden State Warriors. Later, prompting the league’s biggest star, LBJ, to comment “It’s spectacular, I loved it. I’m looking for one” (Highkin, 2014).
Soon enough he did. LBJ wore his shirt the following Monday, along with fellow high profile player, Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets, whom they played against, also donned the shirts. Even President Obama himself applauded James effort saying he “did the right thing”(Sink, 2014). In a display of just how far the conversation about sports and politics has come, Obama continued,
We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves, he said. LeBron is an example of a young man who has, in his own way and in a respectful way, tried to say, ‘I’m part of this society, too’ and focus attention (Sink, 2014).
I’m not what you would call a LeBron fan nor would I consider myself a supporter of the drones and deportations of Obama but, it’s hard to imagine MJ taking such a step and perhaps even more unbelievable to imagine hearing such encouragement from President George H.W. Bush.
Soon enough, high profile players all over the league could be seen making some form of commemoration to the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and the countless other black men, women and children who have been murdered by police. Teams such as the Phoenix Suns, the Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers all had players who showed their support for the victims of police brutality. Making Asian-Americans around the country proud, Jeremy Lin was the first non-black player to sport an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt (“Jeremy Lin wears”, 2014).
Naturally, the players all had somewhat different reasons for wearing their shirts. For example, the Lakers franchise player, Kobe Bryant said it wasn’t about race but about justice. Eclipsing anything MJ ever accomplished from a platform, Kobe went on to add,
“It’s important that we have our opinions. It’s important that we stand up for what we believe in and we all don’t have to agree with, and it’s completely fine. That’s what makes this a beautiful country” (Lutz, 2014).
As mentioned above, Derrick Rose, wore his shirt less than a week after a Staten Island grand jury decided to not indict the cop who killed Eric Garner. He had previously been active in his hometown of Chicago, donating $1 million to After School Matters, a Chicago non-profit that provides programs for at-risk teens (Ziller, 2014). Although he drew some inept criticism for his decision, Rose spoke poignantly about his decision:
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’m a parent now,” Rose said. “I had a kid two years ago. It probably would have been different [before his son was born]. I probably wouldn’t have worn the shirt. But now that I’m a dad, it’s just changed my outlook on life, period (O’Donnell, 2014).
Of course, basketball stars weren’t the only ones participating in the conversation. Prior to the Garner decision, five St. Louis Rams raised their hands in the ‘Hands Up Don’t Shoot’ slogan (which was used widespread during the protests in Ferguson) during their pregame introductions (Wagner, 2014). Jared Cook, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens and Tavon Austin joined other NFL athletes, such as players from the Washington NFL team, who used their platform to convey their feelings about the recent fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. (AP, 2014).
Sharing a helpful understanding of the situation that many commentators seemed to miss, Washington Safety Ryan Clark said Brown “could have been any one of us. That could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins. … When you get an opportunity to make a statement and be more than a football player, it’s good.”
Beyond the world of men’s professional sports, amateur athletes in college and high school student/athletes broadened the response by wearing a variety of shirts with similar messages. In these cases, we can see the direct impact such actions can have on teams and their communities.
On Saturday, December 13, the University of California’s Women’s Basketball team, wore shirts that read Black Lives Matter and We Are Cal on the back. On the front of their shirts each player had the name of an African-American who was killed by police or by lynching, along with the date of their death (Eisenberg, 2014). Some of the names are as follows:
Emmett Till (1955), Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2102), Michael Brown (2014) , Eric Garner (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Kimani Gray (2013), Michael Donald (1991), and Laura Nelson (1911).
This statement made by the Cal team, pointed to a deeper look at police brutality and put it in a historical context. Although it was somewhat at odds with the viewpoint of their NBA counterparts whose comments were directed more towards support for the family and “justice,” the women at Cal helped add to the national conversation about the roots of the problem between police and people of color. By providing examples of names throughout US history, the women demonstrated that the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated incidents, simply the most publicized in a long line of police violence against communities of color.
On December 13, in a game versus Michigan, the Notre Dame Women’s basketball team wore pre-game warm up shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” They also posted pictures on Twitter, accompanied by this quote, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything” (Sherman, 2013). The women were also supported by their coach Muffet McGraw. In a press conference after the game, McGraw addressed the teams decision to take a stand.
I was really proud of our team…You have to be willing to stand up and fight and you have to be accountable in that fight. And the accountability doesn’t end when you leave that locker room. Its not just about basketball. Basketball is just a game. The thing that it teaches you is about life. And these are the lessons that I want them to learn. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand (“Irish wear”, 2014).
One can only speculate on the amount of conversations and revelations that occurred between players, coaches, friends, family member, etc. because of the brave actions of these women. Having the support of their coach is undoubtedly a major factor in allowing the student/athletes to learn from this situation and to continue feeling that much more empowered and knowing they have the ability to make a change.
No team at the collegiate or professional level appeared to have dealt with the amount of controversy that was created around the decisions of some high school basketball players around the country. One of the more inspiring examples of athletes taking a stand came far away from any ESPN reporters or corporate-sponsored stadiums.
In Northern California, the Mendocino Girls and Boys basketball teams were disinvited to a tournament hosted by nearby Fort Bragg High School. The athletic director at Fort Bragg High informed the team from Mendocino they wouldn’t be allowed to play over concern that players planned to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Fort Bragg officials said they worried about the reaction some people would have to the shirts and that they were too small a school to deal with such a situation. An odd presumption given the players had worn the shirts previously without incident nor had there been an other documented cases of conflict from other teams, professional or otherwise (AP, 2014).
The boys team was reinstated after all but one boy decided to comply with the condition of not wearing the shirt. The girls team, however, had too few players not willing to not wear the shirt and were not allowed to play (AP, 2014) .
A couple days later, the teams were re-invited to the tournament. The school district reversed its ban on the t-shirts and said it would allow them as long as they didn’t cause problems. This decision happened after both sides had spoken with lawyers (Leff, 2014). A First Amendment lawyer who represents one of the players, said the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of student athletes (Leff, 2014).
In the end, the girls team did not participate in the tournament, but the boys team did. Regardless, the decision by the athletes to stand up for something they believed in caused many ripples throughout Mendocino county. There has been international coverage of the situation and certainly local residents have been impacted, including the coach of the Mendocino girls team,
“I didn’t even know what it meant. I thought it was a joke about how I had conditioned them so hard,” Freehand said. “None of the administrators knew what it was or that any of them were doing it in advance. This was entirely for their cause that they had strong feelings about” (Leff, 2014).
Through their actions the Mendocino Girls Varsity team sparked debate about freedom of speech and also about privilege. The student bodies at the two schools are 1% black, 50% white and 41% Hispanic at Fort Bragg; 75% white and 9% Hispanic at Mendocino. The girls addressed this disparity and offered a thoughtful explanation for their decision in a public letter, via MSP, ‘To Mendo Sheriff Assoc. & To All ‘Concerned Citizens’:
Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by law enforcement officials. His last words during the incident, ‘I can’t breathe,’ have become a slogan that has gained momentum and media attention after members of the NBA, as well as entire college and high school basketball teams wore shirts with this slogan during their warm-ups.
The Mendocino High School Varsity girls and boys basketball teams made the decision to wear the shirts without the initial encouragement of any parent, coach or other adult. We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public (AVA, 2015).
These girls not only provide an example of how the message of professional athletes is translated from the media to the minds of young people but, more inspiringly, the capacity of student/athletes to take the lead and continue the conversation in places that may have otherwise have missed it completely.
Across the country, in Hartford, CT, the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts received a different reaction when worn by members of the Weaver basketball team. The team was advised on the decision by their coach, Reggie Coach, who also referred to the influence of NBA players in their decision.
“LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, some NBA teams and others, like the latest was the Notre Dame women’s team, have worn the shirts. So now Weaver will, too,” Weaver coach Reggie Hatchett said Monday (de la Torre, 2014). Hatchett continued,
The Eric Garner video showed in front of our eyes he was murdered. So there is the protest, but there are more layers for us wearing the shirts. … “Wearing the shirts shows our responsibility and pride in our team’s multi-ethnicity, most of it African-American. We are socially responsible and aware of what is right. (de la Torre, 2014).
The Weaver High’s Culinary Arts Academy works to emphasize issues of freedom of speech and social responsibility. The support of the principal and the basketball coach have had a positive influence on the players. Some teachers at the school have engaged with the students about the Eric Garner case and the upheaval in Ferguson, Mo. These difficult conversations in the classroom can help young students begin to develop a critical analysis of the conditions that directly affect their lives. Coach Hatchett, emphasises this point:
“When you have young men under your wing, there’s a serious responsibility not just to teach them sports, but also make them understand the life, the community that they live in, and what’s going on,” Hatchett said (de la Torre, 2014).
On December 12th, another group of student/athletes were inspired by NBA players and wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to demonstrate solidarity with people who think there are racial inequities in the criminal justice system. Kleahl Parker, Daurice Mouelle and James Kauli saw NBA players wearing the shirts and were prompted to join the national conversation on race and police brutality (Donaldson, 2014).
Although they had their coaches support and permission, the school’s administration did not want them wearing the shirts during high school games. According to administrators, they are allowed to wear the shirts to school but not during games because they would be representing the school (Donaldson, 2014).
During a game against East High on December 18th, the boys wore their shirts during warm-ups and throughout the game. During the second quarter, the assistant coach was approached by the principal who told him the boys couldn’t wear the shirts while on the bench. None of the boys removed their shirts. At halftime the assistant principal met the boys at the locker room door and informed them wearing the shirts was a violation of Utah High School Activities Association rules. The boys who were wearing them either removed or covered them (Donaldson, 2014).
The boys promised to keep wearing their shirts even if they were under their uniforms because they wanted to educate people about the effects of racism. As young black men living in a predominantly white area, the boys had their own experiences with racism:
I decided to do it with him because I wanted to make other people aware of what’s going on around the world,” Mouelle said. “Every time when I go out, my mom is always telling me to be careful. Don’t do anything stupid because of all of the things that have been happening. People judge you by your skin color, even though they don’t know you. You never know what might happen to you when you go out, even if you’re not doing anything bad (Donaldson, 2014).
The young men from East High and other athletes around the country support each other in re-introducing the athlete-activist after decades of relative silence. They are also a vital part of the broader #blacklivesmatter movement. It is important to understand that similar to how we saw the creation of this important hashtag derived from the work of three queer black women, the initiation of #blacklivesmatter solidarity on the basketball court was also first undertaken by a young black women.
On November 29, Knox College Women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith courageously performed a one woman demonstration at the Knox College v. Fontbonne University game held in Clayton, MO. During the national anthem, Ariyana walked with her hands up in a ‘hand ups, don’t shoot’ gesture towards the American flag and laid on the ground for a full 4.5 minutes to bring awareness to the police killing of Michael Brown, after which his body was left to lay in the street for 4.5 hours (Zirin, 2014). She was suspended for one game. A few days later the college reversed the decision after talking with other members of the basketball team.
In an interview with a local television station, Ariyana said, “I could not go into that gymnasium and pretend that everything was okay. I could not, in good conscience, I could not play that game.”
In a country where business as usual is defined as much by our adoration of athletes as it is by facts such as ‘every 28 hours a black man in murdered by the police, security guard or vigilante,’ I think we would all do well to listen to the words of Ariyana and ‘not pretend everything is okay’ (Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 2013).
It’s also important to realize that under a system of racialized oppression, the perceptions of ‘okay’ for white people and non-black people of color are are inherently different than those of the black community. For some of many examples, black students are three and half time more likely to be suspended than whites (SuspensionStories.com, n.d.); African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population; and 1 in 100 African American women are in prison (NAACP, n.d.). Statistics paint a grim picture but listening to stories give us a more complete description of how this system operates. When we struggle to fight this system we should listen to the stories of those most adversely affected by it and follow their lead towards collective liberation.
From a educator/coach perspective, some ways we can honor these moments is not to consider the courageous actions of athletes as just a flash in the pan. If we choose to look at these examples as solely singular acts than we diminish the value of the interactions that led to them and that followed them. It’s the moments that are experienced in and around the wearing of the shirts – the dinner conversations that we’re sparked, the interactions between students, school officials and community members, the sense of empowerment that often accompanies defiant acts – that allow us to deepen our ability to act in an appropriate way. As educators, coaches, parents and simply as adults, it is our obligation to encourage and support young people to have confidence in themselves and in their beliefs.
The student-athletes were able to get a lesson in participatory democracy and ‘civic dialogue’ they could have never experienced within a classroom unwilling to approach controversial subjects. This is in essence the definition of a teachable moment. By no means do I mean that it was the adults who were doing the teaching. Rather, it’s because of the courageous acts of a few young people that the community at large was exposed to lessons in dealing with adversity, engaging in political debate and expanding their comfort zones. Moving forward, it’s important to remember that these examples are part of a revolutionary process, not to be consumed and tossed aside but to be valued and extended.
Regardless of who instigated the momentum, we do know that ‘basketball season as usual’ was interrupted for many communities around the country.
These days I still spend a considerable amount of time on the basketball court. Demonstrating that some things never change, I still put up more than my fair share of bricks. However, I no longer have skittle-induced dreams about larger than life athletes materializing before me and whisking me off to basketball stardom. This time around, I think of Ariyana Smith more often than Michael Jordan, and the profoundly different ‘Playground’ she and others have provided for the young basketball players of today.
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