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?”