“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.”