In my sports/politics circles, the question has come in fast and furious: Where are the athletes—always code for “black male athletes”—speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson? It’s a very understandable question. It’s also the wrong question. It’s understandable, of course, because there is a history of black athletes being the faces and symbols of the struggle in the United States against racism. It is impossible to imagine early resistance to white supremacy and lynching without recalling the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. You cannot tell the story of the civil rights movement without creating space for the story of Jackie Robinson. The black power movement of the 1960s could not be told without Muhammad Ali and two brave souls, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.
People are also asking the question because the sight of black athletes making this kind of stand is hardly ancient history. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat led by LeBron James, and many other athletes posed with hoodies for Trayvon Martin, when it looked like George Zimmerman would not even be arrested for stalking Martin and taking his life. Kobe Bryant even felt a rather thunderous backlash when he was dismissive of these kinds of actions. Hell, there were NBA players threatening to wildcat strike over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants just a few months ago. People desperate to be inspired in very difficult times want to see more of this.
As Justice B. Hill wrote in a commentary on BET’s website,
[Black athletes] were quick to jump on Donald Sterling for his racism; they’ve been slow or silent altogether in standing up and speaking out about a killing that should never have happened… At some point—and this is that point—Black athletes like Doc Rivers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Torii Hunter must stand as a Black president did. They must insist that no more cop killings of unarmed Black men will be tolerated.
Given especially the twenty-first-century narcotics of fame, iconography and killer visuals, imagine what would happen to Twitter and assorted social media if we had a 2014 version of this press conference. Maybe Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, LeBron James, and Carmelo gathered together to say that the killing of two black men a week by police for the last six years has to stop.*
It is also understandable why many yearn for an athletic speakout on this, given the racial divide in the United States, with more white Americans believing in ghosts than in the realities of institutional racism. The thought is that black athletes with their white fan bases have an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to reach white America in a way that is unparalleled in the culture.