Where sports and politics collide.
Eric Garner’s last three words as he was being choked to death by Staten Island police officers was “I can’t breathe.” Those words have since become one of the iconic slogans of not only the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police violence but of our times. These three words were seared into a much broader national and international consciousness after they were worn in pre-game warm-ups by some of the most well-known athletes in the United States. But it wasn’t just the LeBron Jameses and Derek Roses of this world who wore the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on the court or on the field. A host of high school and college teams, far from the public eye (and in places as diverse as Berkeley and Colorado Springs) took those words to the court in a show of solidarity. Now one of those high school teams is paying the price.
The Mendocino boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, located in Northern California, were disinvited from the Vern Piver Holiday Classic basketball tournament this weekend because they had worn the shirts before a game on December 16. Fort Bragg high school (an institution with a black population of 1 percent) told Mendocino that they would not be allowed to play unless every player on the boy’s team and girls’ team refused to wear the shirts. The boys’ team was reinstated after every player but one agreed to this condition. That one very brave holdout is staying at home. As for the girls’ team, only a couple said that they would even consider not wearing the shirts with almost the entire team standing strong. They will not be fielding a team.
Principal Rebecca Walker of Fort Bragg issued a written statement on Friday explaining their position, in which she said, “To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament.… We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.”
Keep in mind that up until now, there have been no reported incidents before any game, high school college or professional, in response to the players’ wearing the shirts. And we should ask: What kind of a message it is for a principal to send to young people that actually caring about the world and being educated on issues is somehow something that should be maligned and censored, if not outright punished?
As the father of one of the Mendocino players said to the Associated Press, “It doesn’t take a lot to suppress the exchange of ideas when you put fear into it.”
The stand that many of these players are taking teaches a far more important than a school giving a lesson in bullying. Mendocino High School deserves our support as well as a clear signal that they are not alone. We should let them know that their community should be proud of every player, especially on the girls’ team, for giving a damn.
If you want to call Fort Bragg High School and register your disappointment, the number is (707) 961-2880.
If you want to call Mendocino High School and show them some love, the number is (707) 937-5871.
Over the last month, we have seen a veritable “Sports World Spring” as athletes have spoken out on politics in a manner unseen since the 1960s. They have been inspired by the #blacklivesmatter demonstrations directed against the killing of unarmed black men and women by police as well as the inability of the criminal justice system to deliver justice.
The most remarkable part of these protests was not just their breadth nor the stature of the athletes involved but that commissioners and coaches seemed to be allowing it and, in some cases, even nodding in approval. Clearly suspending LeBron James for being upset about the killing of unarmed African-Americans was not seen as savvy public relations.
Now, in the wake of the horrific killing of two NYPD detectives, everything has changed. This eruption of athlete activism will probably not only come to a close but get thrown down the memory hole where the Masters of Sports keep the lost athletic years of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Craig Hodges. In other words, management support will die. The sports bosses—and probably friends and family as well—will tell players that it is time to shut up and play. They will be told that it would be the heights of insensitivity to be seen as criticizing the police while officers, their families and many others are in mourning. It would be tasteless, bad for business, and even dangerous.
If the athlete-activists do retreat into silence, it would be a tragic mistake. Now more than ever, players who wore the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” a week ago should wear it today. In fact, trying to find your breath when police and media are declaring war against a peaceful movement could not be more critical.
For players to say that standing with the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others would now be “inappropriate” is a concession to political actors who are maliciously reframing why they stepped up in the first place. The senseless murder of two police officers by a suicidal lone gunman with a history of mental illness in no way negates the single most important organizing principle of the movement: that black lives matter. Those like Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and their ilk who are equating this movement with violence and murder have never given a damn about opposing police brutality. Instead, they see themselves as foot soldiers in a bigger project of chilling, burying or even criminalizing all criticism of anyone who wears a badge.
The entire focus of everyone involved in this movement—from the people in the street to LeBron and Derrick Rose—has been to demand that African-Americans be afforded the same humanity as everyone else: to be treated as people and not “demons” that need to be put down. There is nothing in the slogans “black lives matter” or “I can’t breathe” or the marches and die-ins that remotely suggests that projecting violence toward police is a solution to police violence. In fact, we have seen athletes like the NFL’s Reggie Bush and pro wrestler MVP who have been both part of the movement and have police officers in their immediate family. Given the explicit calls for vengeance by the NYPD and the rush by the media to place the blame for the shooting on people protesting violence, athletes could use their stature to assert that this movement is just.
I am well aware that this is easy as hell for me to say. It’s not my risk. It’s not my paycheck. It’s not my livelihood. But when you lend support to a movement, you bear a responsibility for that movement’s well being. Black lives matter, and in fact that needs to be expressed with urgency. As long-time criminal justice organizer Keeanga Yahmatta-Taylor said to me, “I can hardly imagine the fear coursing through black New York today. Don’t let your young sons out of the house. This is what we can’t give into—the siege in black communities to avenge murder in the name of the law.” It’s easy when management is patting you on the back, thousands are in the street and Fox News is in the corner mumbling to itself. But now the sunshine is gone and the chill is settling in. If LeBron or Derrick Rose—hell, if Nik Stauskas or Jeremy Lin—can turn their spotlight into even a little bit of sunlight, it will make a difference. If you believed that LeBron, Kenny Britt, Ariyana Smith, the women of Berkeley and so many other athlete activists were on the side of right a week ago, then there is no reason to not believe that they are still right today. Their voices are needed more than ever.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews Ariyana Smith, the first athlete-activist of #blacklivesmatter
The St. Louis Rams, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, the women’s hoops teams at Notre Dame and Berkeley… none of these folks can say that they were the first athlete to bring the #BlackLivesMatter movement into the world of sports. That was Knox College’s Ariyana Smith. On Saturday, November 29, before a game against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, Ms. Smith made the now iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before walking toward the American flag. She then went prone on the floor for four and a half minutes, preventing the game from getting under way. It was four and a half minutes because Ferguson’s Michael Brown lay in the street for four and a half hours after being killed. Since that time, Ms. Smith has taken a crash course in the blessing and burden of what it means to be an “activist athlete.” I was able to speak to Smith. Her experience is well worth reading and sharing by both activists and athletes alike.
Dave Zirin: At what point did you make the decision that an on-court display of activism was something you were going to do in Clayton, Missouri?
Ariyana Smith: Essentially, about a week and a half before our game, the athletic director called us into a meeting and said, “Hey, your safety is all of our concern, and we’re looking to see if we’re going to reschedule the Fontbonne game at Knox, or whether we’ll play at a neutral site so, we’ll get back to you all.” I knew we were playing in Missouri, but now I wondered: How far is Fotnbonne University from Ferguson? It turns out Clayton is actually in St. Louis, only about twenty minutes away from Ferguson. I assumed we’re going to have a further conversation about what’s going on, the implications of it, the gravity of what this means. There was never that conversation. We were never told we were going to be that close to Ferguson. We were never told that, “Hey, the National Guard has been deployed here within the past week.” We were never even given that information.
So I just waited. I had already been following the protests. I had been following the people on the ground, and I had been following the live stream and I was looking at the photos. And when I heard that [a friend named] Patrick didn’t stand during the national anthem during our last game, I felt guilty. Because while I was standing during the national anthem, it felt wrong and I knew that it felt wrong to stand and salute. So right then I said, “This is what I can do. This is something I can do. You know, it’s not much, but I can make a gesture.” At same time, I was still waiting to hear back from the athletics department to see if we were even going to be in Missouri. It comes to Saturday and again, nothing was said. So I had to do something. We arrived in Clayton. We went onto the court. I took off my warm-up jersey. I raised my hand in the air, knelt at the flag and on the last line of the national anthem I collapsed to the ground, and I lay there for four and a half minutes. While I lay there the trainer came over and tried to shake me and tried to get me to stand up. They were asking me if I was OK. My coach walked over and all she said to me was, “Ariyana, you need to move. The ref won’t start the game until you move.” After four and a half minutes, I stood and raised the black power salute. I held that for thirty seconds and continued to walk out of the gym with my fist still raised.
DZ: Can you talk a little bit about the thoughts that were going through your mind during those four and a half minutes?
AS: I tried to tried to think what I was down there for. And what being down there on the floor meant. Being on the ground… it was symbolic. It was a symbolic death. And I think the reactions to that demonstration were very telling. I think the point of what I did was to demonstrate why I felt and still feel so stifled [at Knox]… why I feel like I’m not being heard. I had been telling the athletics department, I had been telling Knox College in general, we are not doing enough. We give lip service to the idea of diversity. We give lip service to the idea of freedom of expression and freedom to flourish. That’s actually our school’s tagline, it’s “freedom to flourish.” We give lip service to those things, but when it comes down to supporting students in the ways we need to be supported, not just when we’re basketball players but supporting us when we take off our uniforms, that doesn’t happen. Supporting us as academics, supporting us as black people, as survivors of sexual assault. That support isn’t happening and marginalized voices are not being heard. So I had to do a physical demonstration.
DZ: There have been some conflicting reports about what occurred after you left that gym. Can you give the narrative about what actually took place?
AS: So right after the game my coaches would not look at me. My teammates kind of glanced at me and looked away. But there were some people who came up and said, “I think what you did was brave. I’m not brave enough to do what you did right now, but I really want to thank you for what you did.” There were even some people who reached out to say yes, this was a good thing. Come Monday I received a text that said I needed to be in the athletic director’s office at 7:45 am. And practice is at 8 am. So I was thinking this is going to be a pretty quick meeting. And I told my teammates, “Well, I’m having a meeting and I’ll let you know how it goes.” Essentially Chad Eisele, the athletics director said, “Now, typically when a player leaves the game they are typically indefinitely suspended from further athletic participation.” And then he said, “But I will let you know that there is a such a thing as a purposeful disruption. Do you think this was a purposeful disruption?”
And I said, “That’s an insulting question, Chad.” And I said, “You make the call [about whether to suspend me], Chad. You make the call.” And so he said, “With that being said, you are indefinitely suspended from further athletic participation. And we’ll get back to you on Thursday.” So that is what I was told. Indefinite suspension, get back to me on Thursday. So I went downstairs and I was going to inform my teammates. Not even thirty seconds later my coach, Emily Cline, walked up to me and said, “You need to leave.” I said, “I don’t need to leave, I haven’t done anything. We have open practices. I can just stand in the hallway.” She said, “Either you leave or I call security.” So she had me escorted out of the building. Now my teammates saw that and said, “Hey, wait a minute. Why is she suspended? And would you escort her out of the building like that?” They were like, “Did you think she was going to be violent? And then why would you think that?” I actually asked one of the trainers, “Do you think I’m going to get violent right now? And why are you making that assumption about me?”
DZ: How did you get reinstituted on the team?
AS: Now the administration was flailing back and forth. Because they had been involved in this. What was told to me was that the suspension was at the coach’s discretion under the approval of the athletic director and it went past the president’s desk. So [Knox College] President Theresa Amott was also involved in this decision to suspend. The president of the institution that is purportedly the home of the underground railroad, abolitionist history, you know, says, “freedom to flourish” and “we support diversity” and we’re one community, but she let this decision go through. So I think that in and of itself says a lot about what the administration actually values, what our athletic department actually values, versus what they’ve been saying.
DZ: Why did they rescind the suspension then?
AS: Because it went to the media. If this was just internal, I don’t think they would’ve reversed the decision. [But] I haven’t returned to the team, because I know that is an environment that is not conducive to my growth. It’s not a space where I’ll be able to operate healthily. It’s just not a space to have to endure treatment from racists and people who have demonstrated that they don’t care to learn about who you are and what struggles you face in life. It’s just not a really healthy environment right now. I don’t want to return to that.
DZ: Have your teammates had your back through this?
AS: Yeah, a lot of my teammates have really stepped up. Right after they learned that I was suspended, we had a meeting at my house where everybody came to express their support and say, “Whatever you need us to do, we’ll do it.” But I told them, “Don’t do it because I want you to do it. Do what you want to do. Whatever you think is wrong in here, whatever you think is wrong about this, you should address that for yourself. I don’t want to dictate how you respond to it.”
[At the next game] they linked hands, raised them in the air, and they had my initials and my jersey number written on their wristbands. I mean, I think in all of this I was hoping that the attention wouldn’t necessarily be on me. I’m just glad to see the larger collective action. I was hoping to spark larger collective action.
DZ: You did this at Knox college, which is obviously not a sports factory. The coach and AD come down on you like a ton of bricks, and now you got entire teams at places like Notre Dame and Berkeley, real sports factories, all wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, or the names of people killed by the police, and they’re getting applauded by their coaches and athletic directors. How does that feel?
AS: It gives me hope. It gives me hope because now these coaches and players have stepped out to say, “Hey, this is wrong.” But now that they’ve made a statement, I hope they follow up on it. When it comes down to it, yeah, they may be happy with a shirt, but what if one of their players decided to protest on the street? Would the support be as strong? I’m happy to see that there are positive responses but I’m not sure about the intensity of the support, if that makes sense. You know, I’m just a person who’s willing to make sacrifices, who’s willing to take risks to see if larger conversations can be sparked. I’m willing to be the person to ask the first question with hopes that there are other people around me that are likeminded. Just like my teammates who said, “I think that what she did was great, but I wasn’t ready just yet.” I’m glad that all these athletes are coming out to do this. Because now it’s right in front of everyone’s faces. Now you have to address it, you have to acknowledge it.
DZ: Last question, do you have any sports and politics heroes? Who are political athletes whom today you’ve looked to as a role model or inspired you to do what you did?
AS: Yeah. I’m actually trying to brush up on my history. Because that wasn’t something that was the focus during my high school or primary school education but in passing I have heard the words of Muhammad Ali and the stances that he took while he was a boxer. I remember in seventh grade flipping passed the 1968 Olympics, the picture of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you their names before now. But those are images that I remember. I remember back in high school, hearing about [NFL punter] Chris Kluwe and what he was doing to speak out against what was going on in his field. So those are just some of the names. It was never a conscious, “Ah yes, this is someone I want to be.” Just looking at this and seeing the work that they were doing, as athletes, and as people. I think now that those moments remind me that, yes, this is something that is not new. This hasn’t happened often in our times. But there are patterns of athlete activism. This is not without precedent.
Thanks to Talal Ansari for transcription assistance.
One common thread that binds all social movements is the rise of the “accidental activist.” These are people who preface what they say with statements like, “I’m not an activist, in any way, shape or form.” And then they proceed to unleash statements of profound impact or find the courage to lead movements, discovering within themselves the capacity to inspire. We are seeing this in cities around the country in the #blacklivesmatter movements as a new generation of leaders is fighting for the space to actually lead.
We also saw it this week in a six-minute speech, delivered without notes, by Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins was under pressure from the Cleveland police union to apologize for wearing a shirt in pregame saying “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford”.Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police and John Crawford nearby Beavercreek, Ohio this year. Tamir Rice was just 12 years old. Tamir had a BB gun. Crawford had picked up a pellet rifle for sale in a Walmart. Neither was brandishing his weapon. Both were gunned down within seconds of being approached by police. Andrew Hawkins, seeing the I Can’t Breathe shirts worn by athletes in pregame preparations around the country, decided to make it very personal and very local. He was morally compelled to whack the hornets’ nest that is the Cleveland police union, knowing he would get stung.
Sure enough, the union’s president, who hasn’t said a word condemning the killings of Tamir and Crawford, called Hawkins “pathetic” and ignorant and demanded an apology. On Monday, Hawkins refused to apologize. On Tuesday, he appeared before the press and spoke. Yes, he said, “I’m not an activist, in any way, shape or form.” It reminds of the young Muhammad Ali who early in his boxing career said, “I don’t join marches and I won’t hold a sign” and then said one whole hell of a lot more.
As you will see, Andrew Hawkins also said, “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I keep my opinions to myself on most matters.” For all our sake, we should be grateful that this was the hundredth time. Thank you Andrew Hawkins. Thank you for standing up to the police union’s bullying tactics. Thank you for getting over your admitted fear of speaking out. Thank you for speaking about your son Austin, saying, “The number-one reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin scares the living hell out of me. And my heart was broken for the parents of Tamir and John Crawford knowing they had to live that nightmare of a reality.” Thank you. You made Tamir Rice and John Crawford visible for many fans who have chosen not to see the tragedy of their deaths and the enraging horror of how they died.
And lastly, thank you Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland for transcribing the below. Please read all of his words. When people find their voice, they tend to say things that far outstrip those who haven’t stopped talking for years.
“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.
“To clarify, I utterly respect and appreciate every police officer that protects and serves all of us with honesty, integrity and the right way. And I don’t think those kind of officers should be offended by what I did. My mom taught me my entire life to respect law enforcement. I have family, close friends that are incredible police officers and I tell them all the time how they are much braver than me for it. So my wearing a T-shirt wasn’t a stance against every police officer or every police department. My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people.
“Unfortunately, my mom also taught me just as there are good police officers, there are some not-so-good police officers that would assume the worst of me without knowing anything about me for reasons I can’t control. She taught me to be careful and be on the lookout for those not-so-good police officers because they could potentially do me harm and most times without consequences. Those are the police officers that should be offended.
“Being a police officer takes bravery. And I understand that they’re put in difficult positions and have to make those snap decisions. As a football player, I know a little bit about snap decisions, obviously on an extremely lesser and non-comparative scale, because when a police officer makes a snap decision, it’s literally a matter of life and death. That’s hard a situation to be in. But if the wrong decision is made, based on preconceived notions or the wrong motives, I believe there should be consequence. Because without consequence, naturally the magnitude of the snap decisions is lessened, whether consciously or unconsciously.
“I’m not an activist, in any way, shape or form. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I keep my opinions to myself on most matters. I worked extremely hard to build and keep my reputation especially here in Ohio, and by most accounts I’ve done a solid job of decently building a good name. Before I made the decision to wear the T-shirt, I understood I was putting that reputation in jeopardy to some of those people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with my perspective. I understood there was going to be backlash, and that scared me, honestly. But deep down I felt like it was the right thing to do. If I was to run away from what I felt in my soul was the right thing to do, that would make me a coward, and I can’t live with that. God wouldn’t be able to put me where I am today, as far as I’ve come in life, if I was a coward.
“As you well know, and it’s well documented, I have a 2-year-old little boy. The same 2-year-old little boy that everyone said was cute when I jokingly threw him out of the house earlier this year. That little boy is my entire world. And the number-one reason for me wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin scares the living hell out of me. And my heart was broken for the parents of Tamir and John Crawford knowing they had to live that nightmare of a reality.
“So, like I said, I made the conscious decision to wear the T-shirt. I felt like my heart was in the right place. I’m at peace with it and those that disagree with me, this is America, everyone has the right to their first amendment rights. Those who support me, I appreciate your support. But at the same time, support the causes and the people and the injustices that you feel strongly about. Stand up for them. Speak up for them. No matter what it is because that’s what America’s about and that’s what this country was founded on.”
“As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today.” pic.twitter.com/2Xy8Vt6tug
— Cal Basketball (@CalWBBall) December 14, 2014
Before discussing the importance of seeing women’s basketball players at Notre Dame and Cal-Berkley join the on-court #BlackLivesMatter movement, let’s remember the story of the legendary Wyomia Tyus.
Wyomia Tyus was the first person in history to win the 100-meter gold in consecutive Olympics, accomplishing this feat in 1964 and 1968. Tyus also showed a remarkable bravery in the tumultuous, dramatic Mexico City Olympics of 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal stand. After anchoring the women’s gold-medal winning 4x100 relay team to victory, Ms. Tyus said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith.” She did this at tremendous personal risk, and despite the fact that the “revolt of the black athlete,” as it was known, made no outreach to those black athletes who happened to be women. Tyus commented years later, “It appalled me that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we’d do whatever we were told.” She was one of several black women who were supportive of the athletic revolution in the 1960s, but denied a seat at the table.
As we find ourselves at the start of new black freedom struggle that’s ricocheting into the world of sports, the voices of athletic women had before this weekend largely been silent. This despite the fact that the first athlete to speak out on the field of play wasn’t Derrick Rose or LeBron James. It was Ariyana Smith at Knox College, who on November 29 lay down on the court for four and a half minutes before the start of a game to symbolize the four and a half hours Michael Brown was left in the street after being killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson. This despite the fact that there would be no #BlackLivesMatter moment without the fearless leadership of black women. If you only know of this struggle from snippets on the news, please know that Al Sharpton is not leading this struggle. It is young black women in Ferguson on the front lines. It is young black women at Howard and young black women leading groups like #ThinkMoor sitting in at Union Station and blocking freeways in DC. It is young black women who led the organizing at Saturday’s march in New York City. It is young black women taking the mic in DC from Sharpton and demanding to be heard.
Yet other than Ariyana Smith and a tweet from Serena Williams, women athletes had not been heard. This changed in dramatic fashion on Saturday, first when the women at Notre Dame took the court wearing the now iconic “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. This was organized by forward Taya Reimer, who said that the team felt pushed to act after a die-in took place on their South Bend, Indiana, campus.
“A few of us talked about it and we thought wearing these shirts for the game would be a cool way to show our support and give our condolences to families that have lost someone,” she said.
Notre Dame’s renowned coach Muffet McGraw then spoke out in support, using words that should be put on a poster.
“I was really proud of our team, especially Taya, to publicly stand for something you believe in. I think one of the things I try to teach them is you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to fight for playing time. You’ve got to fight to win a national championship. You have to be willing to stand up and fight and you have to be accountable…. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand.”
McGraw and her staff wore all-black in a show of solidarity with their players.
Then there were the women basketball players at Cal-Berkeley. After a full week of intense protests in Berkeley, complete with tear gas and undercover police brandishing guns amidst demonstrators, the players felt compelled to act.
As forward Brittany Boyd tweeted, “Planned to wear shirts at home next wk.After today’s events in Berkeley,entire team came 2my hotel room&said we need to act 2day.”
They also had full support from their coach Lindsay Gottleib, who tweeted, “Proud to coach a group with a social & moral consciousness.They proactively seek ways to find their voice and use their platform.”
The Cal players did not wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Instead, they did something both deeply affecting and more in the old DIY activist traditions of their school. On the front of their T-shirts, they put silver duct tape and wrote the name of a black person killed by either police or by lynching. On the back, they wrote “Black lives matter” and “We are Cal WBB.”
After the game, a loss to Long Beach State, Coach Gottleib released a statement that read:
I’m a basketball coach, and I’m competitive and winning is important. Our standards at Cal are high, and of course losing this game is disappointing. That said, however, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of these players or our whole team and staff. As student-athletes at Cal, our young women have a voice and a platform, and they chose to use it today. They want to be part of a solution, and they took the steps that were in their power today.
The proud push by women athletes to project #BlackLivesMatter should be a cause to recognize the indispensable leadership role of black women in this movement. It should also push us to remember all the sports women in history who sought a place in the struggle only to be disrespected and dismissed. Wyomia Tyus arguably ran the best anchor leg of any sprinter in US Olympic history. Finally, after forty-six years, she gets to pass the baton.
I have a second cousin by marriage, let’s call him Frank. He’s a white guy who lives in a middle-class exurban enclave and thinks about politics about as often as he thinks about particle physics—never. He’s not rich and he’s not poor. Like a lot of folks in this country, he works as an independent contractor in a job so boring I can’t even describe it without getting drowsy. He’s a great dad and he plays fantasy football and that’s about it. When the Ferguson protests began after the killing of Michael Brown, he didn’t talk about it, post about it, and when I would talk to him, it was clear that he was not thinking about it. It was like asking him for his opinion about life on Mars, something completely beyond anything that he saw as relevant. This is in and of itself a form of both class and race privilege. Frank does not have to worry about how he or his son has to act around a police officer. He does not have to consider how the country where he lives, pays taxes, and votes sees black lives as disposable. Even the death of Eric Garner, in all its video horror, was something that he did not notice. Then athletes started to raise their hands on the football field in a “hands up don’t shoot” gesture. Then his son and daughter’s heroes, people like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and many more, wore T-shirts with Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” Then the sports radio shows that he listens to when driving—he is in his car about four hours a day—started debating whether or not it was “appropriate” for these kinds of political gestures to take place on the court.
All of a sudden, against his will, Frank—sitting in his car—had to mentally engage with why a group of wealthy athletes (some who make more than Frank will see in a lifetime) would stick their necks out and stand with the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. He had to reckon with why it was so personal to them. Frank went home and actually watched the video of Eric Garner being killed. To put it mildly, it messed with his head. Now he is angry. He is angry at the police and he is angry at a system that polices black communities with a level of violence he has never had to see or experience. In other words, Frank is waking the fuck up.
This is a deeply underdiscussed aspect of the importance and power of athletes speaking out against police violence, wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts and raising their hands high in front of the cameras. It forces people—white people to be specific—who are not on Twitter, who don’t engage with politics, and who in our deeply segregated society only actually “see” and acknowledge black and brown people on television, to confront a distinctly different set of life experiences. It also speaks to why black and brown athletes have historically always been policed by the media and sports owners for their political statements. It’s not the power of their words as much as the power of their reach.
The great Indian writer Arundhati Roy once said, “…in the midst of putative peace, you could, like me, be unfortunate enough to stumble on a silent war. The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.” Frank, in his 30s, has lost his innocence and is starting to feel accountable for the state of this world and the kind of existence he is prepared to hand over to his children. He has asked me what he can do, where he can give money and how, as a white person, he can offer the kind of solidarity that would actually make a difference. I tell this story so people who may already be part of the movement can see the power of bringing this movement into athletic spaces. We need to keep offering support and solidarity to any athlete who stands with this struggle and says, in the words of Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt, “My kids’ lives matter.” We also need to keep marching and doing die-ins in front of basketball arenas on NBA game day, as has happened in DC, Brooklyn and Portland, among other places. Bring this movement to fans. Force people to reckon with worlds that they do not inhabit. We won’t reach everyone. Some will respond with the ugliest possible reaction for daring to invade on their sacred sporting space. But some will also actually “hear” for the first time in their lives. By breaching the walls of the sports world, we can puncture the ultimate privilege in our society: the privilege of blissful ignorance.
“Do we really need a Muhammad Ali if we have a Barack Obama?” This question was posed to me several years ago on ESPN’s Outside the Lines. I was debating a prominent African-American sports columnist who was arguing that we were past the time when there was a crying need to have athletes, particularly black athletes, take political stands. He said that since we now have, as a result of the struggles of the past, a black president, we had to stop pining for activist athletes to pick up the torch from Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and many others who used the platform of sports to speak out for social justice.
Now as thousands across the country stand with the families of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and other unarmed black men killed by police, we are seeing this movement reflect powerfully on the field of play. Pro athletes in the NFL and NBA, from Cleveland’s LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush to members of the St. Louis Rams, who play just a short drive from Ferguson, Missouri, are taking the field with the slogans and gestures of the movement. They are wearing shirts that show Eric Garner’s last words as he was being choked by a Staten Island police officer, “I can’t breathe.” They have “My Kids’ Lives Matter” written on their uniforms. They are putting their hands up into the air. They are puncturing the bubble that surrounds sports and forcing fans to acknowledge this cry for change.
The events of the last several weeks demonstrate exactly why we need activist athletes. They have the power to then influence the “silent majority” of the American public and reach people who are completely alienated from politics.
But that’s not all. One of the fruits of the civil rights movement was that the ceiling rose dramatically for black Americans. Avenues to the middle class and greater wealth were cracked open as a result of persistent struggle. Yet while the ceiling rose, the floor lowered. We can debate the causes. Blame it on a holdover of systemic institutionalized racism. Blame it on the drug war. Blame it on the expansion of the for-profit prison system. Blame it on the growth of a neoliberal economic consensus that lowered living standards for all American workers. However the floor lowered, the results have been the same: the immiseration of poor black communities who live a distinctly different reality than the rest of country. Entire neighborhoods, in the words of sportswriter Howard Bryant, are “under a state of occupation,” with highly militarized police forces on constant patrol. These are not just the neighborhoods rising up against police brutality. They are also more often than not the neighborhoods that have produced the heroes of sports. Poverty has always been the soil that grows pro athletes and it is this world these jocks for justice are trying to get fans to acknowledge. As former NBA MVP Derrick Rose, a product of Chicago’s West Side, said after wearing his “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt:
My biggest concern is the kids. I know what they’re thinking right now. I was one of those kids. When you live in an area like that and you’ve got no hope, and police aren’t treating you any way… I’m not saying all police are treating kids bad, but when you live in an area like that, it gives you another reason to be bad.
This sentiment was also articulated, somewhat surprisingly, by NBA legend Magic Johnson. Magic, not exactly outspoken in his day, praised these new activist athletes:
They have to get involved socially. They have to because it affects them, too. And it affects their families. They grew up in these situations; they must not forget that. They [were] once poor, they went to inner-city schools that didn’t have technology or computers, they didn’t have good books. See, I went through that whole situation. They went through that as well. A lot of their cousins are still going through that, so they must not forget that. I hope that they would do [even] more.
These athletes, as sure as the viral video of the police killing Eric Garner, are now acting as a transmission belt from the communities of their birth to a white majority that often does not acknowledge the existence of this other America. In fact, one could argue they are the most effective transmission belt in pushing people to see a truth in how communities of color are forced to live. The next step would be for white athletes to now take the ball and wear a shirt of their own, maybe reading “My Teammates’ Lives Matter” to further impress upon fans that this is not a “black issue” but a national call for all of us to claim some semblance of humanity. (The first non-black athlete did wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt Tuesday night, Taiwanese-American Lakers guard Jeremy Lin.) Given how multi-racial the demonstrations have been around the country, it is past time to see them act in the tradition of 1968 Olympian Peter Norman, who stood at attention wearing a solidarity button while Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico City, and show a solidarity that would not only be welcome but needed.
The times in which we live, as protests ricochet from outside the arena to inside, have answered the question: “Do we need a Muhammad Ali if we have Barack Obama?” Hell yes we do. In fact, maybe because there is a Barack Obama, we need athlete activists now more than ever. We need them to keep saying, “If I matter to you with a ball in my hand, then respect me enough to think about where I’m coming from.”
The marches in the streets are not done. The die-ins disrupting traffic are not done. Any kind of closure for the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and so many others is far from done. So why should anyone be surprised that the St. Louis Rams were not done? A week after five players raised their arms in the now iconic protest pose of “hands up, don’t shoot,” wide receiver Kenny Britt took the field with the names “Michael Brown” and “Trayvon Martin” written on his cleats. His teammate Jared Cook had the words “I can’t breathe,” the last gasp of Staten Island’s Eric Garner as a police officer cut off his oxygen with a chokehold, written on his wristband. Teammate Davin Joseph had the same phrase written on his cleats.
They were not alone. Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, who was attacked by Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League for comparing the late Michael Brown’s hometown of Ferguson to Gaza on Instagram, was not cowed into silence and wore a shirt that read “I can’t breathe” during warm-ups. He said, “Honestly, I’ve always been the quiet kid. I’ve always been the one who’s reserved, to kind of sit back and not really get into politics and things like that. But I don’t know why I just felt some kind of … I guess the situation just touched me.”
Bush’s mom has also been a police officer for twenty years, and yes, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at the Bush house this Christmas.
Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi also wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt before game time, as did San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram. Then there was Brandian Ross of the Raiders, who came out during player introductions without a helmet and with his hands up high, and Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker, who raised his hands up after a sack. Although, in Baker’s case, the gesture of anti-racism while wearing a Redskins uniform probably won’t make it onto a protest poster anytime soon.
These actions by NFL players come the day after NBA star Derrick Rose wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt during warm-ups, which prompted the NBA’s number-one icon, LeBron James,to say, “I thought it was great. I’m looking for one.”
Then there is All-Star guard Damian Lillard who posted this gut-punch of a political cartoonby Rik Sansone to his Instagram account, causing the image to go viral among sports fans and protesters alike.
Two members of the Oregon Ducks basketball team also raised their hands up during the pledge of allegiance the week after Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith, playing near Ferguson in Claremont, Missouri, lay on the floor of the court and would not move for four and a half minutes, to represent the four and a half hours that Michael Brown was left in the street after dying at the hands of Darren Wilson.
Each of these actions has the effect of amplifying the impact of a new struggle for human dignity in the face of racism. It has has found expression in all fifty states and in solidarity actions in cities around the world all with the message that black lives matter. Seeing the movement impinge upon the highly sanitized, deeply authoritarian world of sports is not only a reflection of just how widespread the outpouring of anger has been. These athletic protests also shape the movement, giving more people the confidence to get in the streets and puncturing the self-imposed bubbles of those who want to pretend that all is well in the world. It is politicizing sports fans and educating those who think that sports in general—and athletes in particular—have nothing to offer the struggle for a better world.
Yes, it is also provoking a great deal of ugliness among a segment of fans on social media, not to mention snide smirks from some sports writers who once a year find time to praise people like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others tucked away in the past. They should listen to Lions coach Jim Caldwell, one of only four African-American head coaches in the NFL. When asked about his players getting political the normally taciturn Caldwell said:
I grew up in the 60s, where everybody was socially conscious. I believe in it. I’d be a hypocrite if I stood up here and told you any differently, because more than likely, some of those protests that Dr (Martin Luther) King and some of the others that took a part in non-violent protests, is the reason why I’m standing here in front of you today.
This is a similar moment. Except this movement is not only explicitly about the right to live a life with more opportunity, but the right to simply live. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The train is leaving the station, even in the world of sports.
There are only two conclusions one can draw about Florida State football star quarterback Jameis Winston. Either he is a remarkable athlete who has little comprehension of the world beyond the huddle and hired the most callous attorneys on the planet to beat a sexual assault charge. Or he is a remarkable athlete who carries a deeply embittered streak of misogyny. Jameis Winston is currently facing a Florida State code of conduct hearing over charges of sexual assault. These same allegations were deemed to be without merit by the state’s attorney, although the initial investigation by Tallahassee police was so shady it was worthy of its own New York Times exposé.
Yet whether Winston is guilty or innocent, nothing excuses the testimony—published in USA Today—that the quarterback submitted to the code of conduct hearing this week. In his own defense, the Heisman winner writes, “The only thing as vicious as rape is falsely accusing someone of rape.” Read Daniel Roberts for a searing statistical breakdown for how gobsmackingly ridiculous such a statement actually is. The chances of being falsely accused of rape are about as likely as being struck by lightning: one in 2 million. Meanwhile, 25 percent of women on campus say they have survived a sexual assault. Also, as Roberts writes, many high-profile athletes have survived and even thrived after sexual assault accusations and convictions. Meanwhile, actual survivors of sexual assault are often treated like they deserve any pain that lingers.
The statement also repeatedly, over and over again, names the alleged survivor of the assault. Her name is redacted in USA Today because naming accusers of sexual violence is a way of humiliating and “slut-shaming” them into silence, although, thanks to Winston and his attorneys, it is now just a Google search away. And speaking of “slut-shaming”: Winston’s statement is also a calculatingly explicit indictment of a young woman who was a willing partner in a variety of sexual adventures and then—for reasons Winston chalks up to anger over the way his door kept swinging open to his peeping friends—decided to upturn her life and make these accusations.
It is impossible to write about this story and not reflect on the national wave of protests taking place against the police terror inflicted primarily on young black men. As stories of unequal and deadly treatment by cops flood into social media, here is Jameis Winston actually being protected by the Tallahassee police, his college small-town-god status giving him benefits that the late Eric Garner, Michael Brown or Tamir Rice could not imagine. But while Winston might be sheltered and protected, do not think for a moment that it springs from the post-racial hearts of the powers-that-be in Tallahassee. What you see in Florida’s state capital is the “gutter economy” that secretly runs NCAA sports.
Jameis Winston and his 25-0 record as a Florida State quarterback is not a human being to the cops and administrators and coaching staff of Florida State. If he is any species of mammal at all to them, it is that of the cash cow. He feeds his coach Jimbo Fisher, who got a new $4.1 million annual salary, making him the highest-paid public employee in the state. He feeds the local Chamber of Commerce, pumping $10 million into the local economy for each high-profile home game. He feeds the hotel and restaurant owners to the kids selling bottles of water on the side of the road for tailgaters. He feeds the ten-figure trough of television money that is going into the inaugural college football playoffs. He even feeds the Tallahassee police who are paid directly by an organization called Seminole Boosters to provide security on Game Day. In fact, according to The Boston Globe, three of the officers in the Winston investigation were seeking work with the Seminole Boosters. Of course, Jameis Winston does not see a dime. He is paid in protection and privilege, guilty or innocent. His humanity morphs and he becomes a new creature: something near-mythological best described as half god/half chattel. That’s the gutter economy at work. The relationship has disturbing similarities to the ones outlined by William Rhoden in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, about the ways that the enslaved stars of plantation sports were given tastes of luxury that others in bondage could not imagine. No, I am not arguing that college athletes are slaves. But as civil rights historian Taylor Branch has written, the business certainly does have “more than a whiff of the plantation.” In other words, the power relationships that defined 350 years of black existence in this country can certainly change. But especially when profits loom, they can also mutate like a virus, adapting and taking different forms to meet a new set of masters.
The Winston case stirs strong emotions because it brings together two of the ugliest strains of Americana: the history of false accusations of rape leveled against black men; and the systematic—and deadly—slandering of women who dare accuse men of sexual assault. The one thing Jameis Winston and his lawyers have true control over is how he presents himself through this process. His failure in this regard is total.
Debt. Displacement. Militarization of public space. Gentrification on steroids. This describes what the Olympic Games leave in their wake in the host cities where they nest. Whether in Athens, Beijing or London, the hangover is the same no matter what national currency has been lifted.
Debt. Displacement. Militarization of public space. Gentrification on steroids. This also sounds a whole hell of a lot like life in the San Francisco Bay area, where rents continue to skyrocket amidst a stunning stratification of wealth.
San Francisco is now a finalist for the US bid to host the 2024 Summer Games, along with Los Angeles; Washington, DC; and Boston. Presentations to the International Olympic Committee will take place on December 16, and whichever city the USOC puts forward will be a front-runner to host the 2024 Olympics. This column is a plea for the people of the Bay to take a cue from Boston and start organizing now to make sure this does not come to pass.
The working people living in—and getting forced out of—San Francisco do not need long memories to call out the fool’s gold of hosting these kinds of mega events.
In 2013 San Francisco hosted the America’s Cup sailing race, the world’s elite yacht regatta. Organizers of the event assured the city it would be a guaranteed money-maker, a jobs-o-rama, a tourism boost, a can’t-miss win-win that would be funded in large part by private donors.
The only problem was that none of this turned out to be true.
In 2010, the city was told it would get a $1.4 billion economic pick-me-up, but in the end America’s Cup only created an impact of $364 million. Boosters promised almost 9,000 jobs but only 3,800 actually materialized. The private donors turned out to be phantoms, only kicking in about a fourth of the promised $32 million. Meanwhile, Larry Ellison, the billionaire CEO of Oracle, who was a driving force in bringing the event to the Bay Area, milked the event like his own private, golden cow. His yacht squad—Oracle Team USA—won the race in dramatic fashion and he attached Oracle’s annual customer trade-show conference like a barnacle onto the event. City taxpayers, on the other hand, lost money, some $5.5 million.
The Olympics are just like this, except for one small difference: three small zeroes. Instead of millions, with the Olympic games we’re talking billions. And instead of getting a billionaire’s fantasy yacht party, you’ll get a cavalcade of global elites who will expect nothing less than you to turn the city over to both their rule and plunder.
Business leaders from all four candidate cities have assured jittery citizens that hosting the Olympics will merely cost between $4 billion and $5 billion. Notorious construction contractors provide more realistic investments. Initial bids, floated in the early stages of the process, are scandalously low, designed to rally public support. But the history of Olympic city bidding is unequivocal: every Olympics since 1960 has run over-budget. In real terms, the average cost overrun was 179 percent, a far higher rate than that of other mega projects. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics magnified this inconvenient truth, racking up a $51 billion price tag, more than all previous winter games combined.
The possibility of San Francisco games costing less than $5 billion is about as likely as finding a one-bedroom in Pacific Heights for $400 a month. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Marcus Gilmer got it right when he asserted that the initial price tag anted up by the four candidate cities is “ridiculously low.”
San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer is pushing the bid arm-in-arm with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and his senior adviser Tony Winnicker. Former Olympic swimmer Anne Cribbs is also on board—as CEO of the San Francisco Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee, she spearheaded San Francisco’s failed bid for the 2012 Olympics. The team also includes venture capitalist Steve Strandberg. The irony of Baer leading the charge is that the SF Giants—three world titles in five years—are one of the few teams to play in a stadium that wasn’t built on the public dime. They are living proof that private capital can finance their own games and do just fine.
Yet Baer—maybe with an eye on the next Giants stadium—is pressing hard for the games. He said, “It just seems like it’s sort of our moment in time for this region to shine on the international stage.” We always hear this sort of talk about a city being ready to step up to the world’s imaginary podium in the sky, but while we all crane our necks upward, the Olympics are wreaking real problems back on earth. Displacement and gentrification are amplified wherever the Olympics appear.
San Francisco already suffers from all of the problems that the Olympics would exacerbate. Earlier this year we saw protests focused on “Google buses,” the chartered shuttles ferrying tech workers from the city to Silicon Valley that are a glaring symbol of inequality. The Olympics will bring the equivalent of a platinum-plated fleet of Google buses, and, per IOC’s normal requests, their own special driving lanes.
Then there is police brutality. Where the Olympics go, crackdowns on the poor follow. In the wake of Ferguson and the demonstrations that have followed, people in San Francisco and Oakland—the home of Oscar Grant—should ask themselves if they want the kind of hyper-intense policing that come with the games.
In the wake of the America’s Cup, John Avalos of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said, “The whole event has been nothing more than a stupefying spectacle of how this city works for the top 1 percent on everyone else’s dime.” With the Olympics, the same dynamic applies, only exponentially and in Technicolor: local taxpayers play the role of fiscal backstop, while a privileged sliver of the global 1 percent walks off with the rewards. The time to fight is now, SF. Let the looters of international sports know in advance that SF has a powerful tradition of protest that is ready to be wielded if the Olympics dare to try and make SF their new playground.