If there was ever a moment that signaled how little black lives mattered to people in power, it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is not a novel observation, by any means. It was called out in real time by New Orleans residents, racial-justice activists around the country, and Kanye West’s off-script and utterly true comments that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” (These comments apparently left a more lasting impression on Bush than the actual dead of New Orleans.)
My Nation colleague Mychal Denzel Smith has written a searing piece—“The Rebirth of Black Rage”—about how Hurricane Katrina signaled a new era of urgent black protest, how this upsurge was blunted by Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president, and how the promise of the impatient, righteous rage that followed Hurricane Katrina is finally being realized in today’s movements against police violence.
In 2005, there was reflection of the dynamics Mychal describes in the world of sports, albeit with some striking differences. Black athletes have at times provided a historically vital megaphone for black rage: a platform where a select group of “jocks for justice” amplified the call from the streets and risked their own—often illusory—privilege as well-paid professional entertainers.
As much as this history has been commodified or repackaged beyond recognition, there is a reason one cannot tell the history of the early 1950s civil-rights movement without Jackie Robinson or the black freedom struggle of the 1960s without Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, or John Carlos. Similarly, one would have difficulty telling the history of #BlackLivesMatter without mentioning Serena Williams, the St. Louis Rams, Ariyana Smith, and the NBA players who told the world that they could not breathe.
Yet the gap in athletic activism between the 1960s and the 21st century was chasmic. Finding an athletic response to the devastation of the Reagan years, the 1992 LA rebellion, or Bill Clinton’s mass-incarceration campaign that we now know as the New Jim Crow was at the time like searching for a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl run. The little athletic response that did emerge—from people like NBA players Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—was drowned by dismissive, almost entirely white sports media, vindictive league executives, and a Nike culture that told athletes that there was no higher calling than becoming a brand. Then the levees broke, and with them, cracked the crushing conformity around the political lives of athletes.
I remember speaking with young NBA center Etan Thomas in 2005 when he said to me, “I definitely agree with Kanye West. Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water? When the hurricane hit in Florida, Bush made sure those people got help the next day. But now, when you are dealing with a majority poorer class of black people, it takes five days? Then you still don’t send help but instead send the National Guard to ‘maintain order’? Are you kidding me?”
Etan was hardly alone. Saints receiver Joe Horn said, “It’s devastating to us. I’ve cried three or four times. Seeing kids without any food, elderly people dying and the government saying that help is on the way—that’s the most shocking part.”
Charles Barkley, who has been so awful in 2015 on questions of black protest and police brutality, may not want us to remember that ten years ago he said the following:
“We need to look at the big picture now, and get these people back on their feet. We got to get them jobs and got to get them housing. That’s the most important thing. America is divided by economics, and especially poor kids have to get their education. If you are poor and black or poor and white or Hispanic, you are going to be at a disadvantage. You are not going to have the best neighborhoods or best school…if you don’t get education and you are poor then you are at the mercy of this government.”
Even Barry Bonds asked why Congress had time to investigate steroids while people were dying in New Orleans.
The outpouring was significant, not least of all because in these pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, prehistoric times, words had an impact of amplification; they were less hurried, less-impulse driven, less disposable.
It should not have been surprising that it took Hurricane Katrina and the obscene political response that ensued to break athletes out of their swoosh-adorned shells. It wasn’t only the horrors of the floating bodies, the people calling for help on their roofs, or the horror of seeing the New Orleans Superdome quickly morph into the homeless shelter from hell. It was the fact that, according to research I did at the time, more than 100 pro athletes from the three major sports leagues—NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball—had been raised on that little scrap of land known as the Gulf Coast.
It’s a remarkable percentage. I remember asking a friend of mine who is still a coach down there how that small land mass had produced so many professional jocks. He said, “Well, Dave, you’ve got poverty, you’ve got institutional racism, you’ve got horrible schools, and you’ve got full-time sunshine all year round. That is the perfect soil to produce professional athletes in this country.”
William Rhoden, the New York Times sports columnist and author of $40 Million Slaves, returned to that soil soon after the levees broke. He arrived with a group of NBA and WNBA athletes bringing supplies. Rereading the column, it has the power of #BlackLivesMatter prophesy. He writes:
Horrifying images underscored the reality that there are multiple tiers of life in America. The images of death, desperation, hopelessness, and poverty, flushed into full view, made many of us wonder where this America had been hiding. We did not recognize it. Some of us did not even realize this America existed. The hurricane was also a wake-up call for this group of NBA athletes, because the hardest hit were black and poor…. Many of the athletes were raised in Mississippi and other parts of the South. They knew firsthand what it meant to live by a slender thread. Justin Reed, a forward for the Boston Celtics said he saw himself in the faces of young storm victims. “I come from a single-parent home, and once upon a time we were homeless,” he said. “I know how hard it is to start from scratch, to have to build and build and wonder if you’re ever going to be able to live like you once lived…” Dallas Maverick center Erick Dampier also spoke about the need to “pull together as a group.” The instinctive desire to come together was real, but we—and the people of the Gulf—are still waiting for it to ripen and cohere into the new kind of Civil Rights movement so needed.
Yet as Mychal Denzel Smith put it so perfectly, that “new kind of Civil Rights movement” ran straight into the “Obama for President” campaign and was “redirected to electoral politics and the messaging of Obama’s candidacy. Black rage was being channeled into black hope. On its face, that isn’t entirely bad, but the particular brand of black hope that Obama represented was one that muted black rage, and its possibilities, altogether.”
For black athletes, however, the Obama candidacy had another indirectly positive dimension. It opened up an exceedingly safe space to do what few had done in the previous decades: speak about politics. Athletes we have heard from a great deal amidst the #BlackLivesMatter era—Serena LeBron, Carmelo—first braved the political waters in supporting Obama’s candidacy (even though Serena—and this was also its own kind of bravery—said that she would not vote). This, along with advances in social media, has dramatically opened up the opportunity for athletes to finally put the Age of the Apolitical Athlete to bed and reframe their platform as one that could be used for something other than selling us more crap.
As I have written, I believe that in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, this has been invaluable as a transmission belt to a white audience about the realities of police violence. But there is still so much more to do. As we remember the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and the yearning for a new civil-rights movement, we all—athletes or not—would do well to remember the central message of Mychal Denzel Smith’s piece: telling people to calm down, or wait their turn to speak, does more than miss this moment. It will be seen as an effort to derail it. For athletes, to do as LeBron James did during the NBA Finals, and tell people to pull behind a team as a way to calm civil unrest and “get your mind off some of the hardships” will not be met with appreciation by those fed up with what Serena Williams called “the gigantic nightmare” of police violence. The “fierce urgency of now” has journeyed from rallying call to focus tested political brand, to a guide to action. Athletes that amplify this urgency will have an impact that ricochets well beyond the playing field. The amplifiers will be remembered. White athletes who cast away the privilege of silence and say something will be remembered as well. It mattered after Hurricane Katrina and it matters now. It matters because when Mike Brown was shot dead and then lay in the street for four and a half hours, the levees broke once again, and they are far from fixed.