The NBA Finals may be determined by an act of police violence. This is an incendiary fact, yet a curious media silence surrounds the saga of injured Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. The nine-year pro has been absent from the playoffs after a group of New York Police Department officers broke his leg in April following a late-night confrontation outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police accounts about what took place conflict dramatically, with video that emerged of a group of officers surrounding Sefolosha, with one brandishing a nightstick. Sefolosha, with assistance from the National Basketball Players Association, is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York. How this is not a continual firestorm is, frankly, bewildering. Given that there is a national movement confronting racialized police violence, and given that last winter saw the most prominent players in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, even Kobe Bryant—speaking out in solidarity with this movement, it seems like a story too magnetic to ignore. It’s also unprecedented. My first editor told me, “The sun going up is beautiful, but it’s not a story. The sun not coming up, now, that’s a story.” This is the sun not coming up. It’s a narrative that would appear ripe for big-budget investigative reporting, regular updates, or even chatter. It would especially seem tailor-made for an era in sports media when everything is numbingly over-discussed; an era when Tom Brady’s vigorously rubbed footballs or the presence of adorable children at NBA press conferences qualifies as subjects of endless debate. But somehow it’s not.
Now, as the Hawks square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, this story should be re-emerging with a vengeance, and not only because Sefolosha is the only Hawk with deep playoff experience, as well as an effective defender of Cavs’ all-world superstar LeBron James. In game one, Hawks guard Demarre Carroll, their top playoff scorer and chief defender of James, went down with a knee injury. This has elevated Sefolosha’s absence from nettlesome to near-cataclysmic. Now, without Carroll or Sefolosha, the Hawks might as well assign a matador to guard James with a red cape. (Carroll’s situation, which initially looked gruesome, is officially day-to-day at this point, and he should be back later in the playoffs, although how effective he’ll be with a hyper-extended knee is anyone’s guess.)
Yet Carroll’s injury did not provoke a re-examination of what happened to Sefolosha. This near-silence has been across the sports media landscape, so it feels churlish to pick on one example, but it was both too high-profile and too evocative to ignore. On Thursday morning, Mike Greenberg, hosting ESPN’s national Mike and Mike radio show, talked about how the Hawks could possibly be able to guard LeBron without Carroll, and mentioned Thabo’s absence as well. In describing for his audience why Thabo isn’t playing, all Mike Greenberg said was, “We all know what happened there.” That was it. No mention of the NYPD, the conflicting stories, or the fact that NBA players have gone out of their way to speak about police mistreatment. Just “We all know what happened there.” Actually, we don’t all know what happened there, and that’s the point. Instead of retelling or even illuminating what we know, this line was dead on arrival. And yet “we all know what happened there” were six words more than most sports media offered this past week. Even the notably outspoken TNT team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley had nothing to say about it on Inside the NBA, broadcast immediately after the Hawks lost to Cleveland and in the aftermath of Carroll’s injury. Yes, given Shaq’s history as a volunteer police officer and Barkley’s own comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not have exactly been a rousing call for social justice, but to not even mention it was bizarre. Even Marv Albert discussed Sefolosha briefly during the broadcast. But to the TNT studio team, he was the invisible man.
I spoke to nine NBA journalists, editors, and television producers on and off the record about why this story has been objectively under-discussed. One might think they would say it’s because fans either don’t care about someone viewed as a role player or because it’s a polarizing topic and the audience will rebel if sports pundits get too political. But that’s not what I heard.
Michael Lee, The Washington Post’s national NBA writer, penned a terrific piece about the case with a series of quotes from NBA players and told me that it was his most viewed story of the entire season.
As far as a fan backlash, Sekou Smith of NBA.com and host of their Hang Time podcast has been one of the few to discuss it at length and e-mailed me that he has received “no backlash at all. I have no idea why it has gone so far off the radar. Perhaps he’s not a big enough name for our sensationalized 24-hour news cycle? The ignoring of it is just strange.”
After I fired off a series of tweets about why the media was not discussing this story more, three people from ESPN reached out to me to talk and say that they agreed. To be clear, this does not usually happen out of ESPN HQ in Bristol. People don’t air their anger with the company except in extreme circumstances. The only other time I’ve had that experience of people reaching out to me from inside the tent was when ESPN pulled out of its partnership with PBS’s League of Denial documentary about the NFL and head injuries. They did not want me using their names or exact words, out of concern of reprisals. Regarding Sefolosha, it’s fair to say that they were frustrated about the lack of resources, airtime, and enthusiasm devoted to what they saw as a monster story. They also said that they were rebuffed when they raised devoting regular time to it on ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter. The only concrete reason one received was “people not being particularly interested in the Hawks compared to other teams in the playoffs.” They all conceded that there was little audience appetite for more Hawks coverage, but believed that the story was bigger than just the fortunes of one team.
I was able to connect with Rob King, ESPN’s Senior vice president, overseeing SportsCenter, for comment. He e-mailed me the following: “The suggestion that there has been a broader decision to spike the story is ludicrous and disappointing. We understand with great clarity the potential significance of this story and continue to report it. As for ‘discussing it more on SportsCenter,’ this is a story that deserves greater illumination, which means information, not mere discussion. That takes reporting, and that’s how we’re proceeding.”
To be clear, no one suggested that the story was “spiked” just that it was deprioritized, which is self-evident given the absence of regular coverage. That said, King’s comments that the largest entity in sports media will be all over this story as it develops is very welcome. Yet there are aspects of King’s statement that raise questions. His dismissal of people who want to “discuss” this case, in other words to analyze it without new information, is peculiar given that ESPN just “discusses” issues that affect sports constantly. Also, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also doesn’t just report on breaking news but breaks the news through its own investigative reporting. The recent award-winning work on Qatar’s labor practices as they prepare for the World Cup by the E:60 team, led by Jeremy Schaap and seen across several of their media platforms, is evidence of this. (Another ESPN show, Outside the Lines, has frequently covered the broader landscape of NBA players and the Black Lives Matter movement.) Also, given the incredible access ESPN has to NBA players, it is unclear why they aren’t asked their thoughts about Sefolosha. This isn’t an irrelevant question. Almost the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team wore shirts against police violence and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Asking them about Sefolosha is more than logical. It’s obvious. But—at least by my research—it hasn’t happened on ESPN since the conference finals began.
One Cavs player, Kendrick Perkins who was a teammate of Sefolosha in Oklahoma City certainly hasn’t been shy about expressing his thoughts. He spoke at length to Michael Lee and said, “I was very shocked because Thabo is so laid back. He’s so not drama. He runs away from drama.” Other former teammates have also chimed in, like Pistons guard Reggie Jackson who said in a powerful piece by Vince Ellis for The Detroit Free Press, “I think a lot of people fear black males, so it’s scary. I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda unfair at times as a black male. Only thing that I feel protects us is probably the celebrity status and being an NBA player, but nobody’s off limits when you see what happens to a former teammate like Thabo.” This is a perspective that ESPN’s viewers, many of course who don’t have to deal with fears of police violence, ought to hear. There are no shortage of NBA players willing to give some copy on this issue if asked.
It is certainly true is that despite their 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks garner less national interest that any of the other teams remaining in the playoffs. But it doesn’t explain why the Atlanta media, as the team competes in their first NBA conference finals in franchise history, has been so lackluster on this story. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has 30 articles in its archives that contain the words “Thabo” and “police” although the overwhelming majority comprise either offhand mentions, wire reports, or short updates on the case. It’s not that there isn’t local interest. Just by tweeting about Sefolosha, my twitter handle trended in Atlanta, according to Trendsmaps. That’s kind of absurd. One Atlanta-based journalist said to me, “When it’s talked about on sports radio it’s just blame Thabo for being out late and move on. Not much deeper than that.”
The more I spoke to people, the clearer it was that this story has not garnered more coverage because of how the media police themselves. One person at Yahoo Sports said to me, “We censor ourselves. We’re risk-averse. White columnists feel like they’d get the story wrong, and black columnists don’t want the responsibility and risk of having to be the ones to write about it. We end up in a state of paralysis.”
Not everyone has been paralyzed, however, and it’s not always the case that the media silence themselves. There are still those columnists willing to play police if one of the brethren gets out of line. Turner Sports sideline reporter and former longtime print journalist David Aldridge spoke lucidly and directly about Thabo case in the middle of a live telecast. In just over a minute of airtime, Aldridge managed to report on Sefolosha’s surgery and the reaction of the franchise, and had breaking news comments from the new executive director of the NBA Players Association, Michelle Roberts, who confirmed that it were conducting its own investigation and said, “The best I can tell you is that there is no video at all to justify the way the police treated them.”
For his trouble, he was treated to a column in the New York Post by the reliably awful Phil Mushnick titled “David Aldridge ignores stabbing details to unfairly bash NYPD.”
The “details” that Mushnick felt were omitted were basically that Sefolosha was asking for it by being out at 4 am. Charming.
But Mushnick plays the role of buffoon with regularity and is an easy foil. This kind of media policing is the exception. A more apt analysis is probably that the sports media world does not want to be perceived as criticizing or even discussing the role of police in our society, particularly in the black community. One can understand why someone in a position of authority on a newspaper or at a network could identify this as an excessively polarizing subject and, without breaking news generated by Thabo Sefolosha’s camp, unnecessarily hazardous. But not putting a spotlight on such an unprecedented set of circumstances also represents an impulse to not unnecessarily upset the police or their supporters. This impulse appears to be even stronger than the drive for ratings or page views. This impulse represents a timidity that takes a story which could act as a lens toward educating people about a national crisis and consigns it to the dustbin. Meanwhile as thousands march in solidarity with Freddie Gray’s family in Baltimore, or gather in New York’s Union Square to say that the lives of black women matter, Thabo Sefolosha is on crutches. His team needs him and the NBA Finals hang in the balance, but he has a broken leg courtesy of the NYPD. Nope, nothing to see here.