“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: