What is so stirring when we look back at the socially conscious athletes of the 1960s is not what they did but who they were. It was the stars, the best of the best, the jocks with the world in their hands, who were also the era’s leading political lights. In that heightened political era, being a star athlete meant that you had better have something to say about the movements raging outside the arena, with the war in Vietnam and the black freedom struggle at the top of the list.
The greatest basketball player, Bill Russell, the greatest football player, Jim Brown, the greatest college hoops player Lew Alcindor, and the man known simply as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, were all part of what sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards called “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.”
In the intervening years, we have seen brave political athletes, particularly in the NBA. Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Etan Thomas, Steve Nash and Jason Collins all come to mind. But the stars—Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq—were defined by their absence of political stands. As the movements in the ’80s and ’90s tended to simmer instead of boil, and as salaries and commercial opportunities skyrocketed for athletes—particularly black athletes—the leading lights used their platform to tell us what to buy far more than they asked us to think with critical minds.
This changed dramatically in 2014. Last spring, we had players threatening to walk off the court if the League did not finally deal with former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Now the recent explosion of protests following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley at the hands of police have brought this struggle back into the NBA. It started small, with Kings second-year player Ben McLemore writing the name of Ferguson’s Michael Brown on his sneakers. Then on Saturday Derrick Rose wore a shirt during warm-ups that read, “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner as he was being choked to death by a police officer on Staten Island. On Monday in Brooklyn, it was LeBron James and Kyrie Irving of the Cavs and Jarrett Jack, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Alan Anderson of the Nets all wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups. As they played the game inside hundreds were gathered outside, “dying in” for justice, disrupting the traffic flow to the arena. Both the protests inside and outside the arena seemed to be saying the same thing: There is injustice and there needs to be a response. Every night it seems there is another player (or in the case of the Los Angeles Lakers, another team) wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts or speaking out.
Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” No, this is not 1968. But there is a similar rhythm and flow to what is taking place. Sports is reflecting the struggle in the streets and this reflection is showing its power to increase the confidence and sense of moral urgency of those on the outside as well as having the power to educate fans who would sooner roll their eyes than listen to what the protestors are trying to communicate.
One missing piece of this puzzle would be seeing NBA stars who happen to be white wearing a slogan of their own, maybe a shirt that could read “My Teammates’ Lives Matter.” As of these this writing, the Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin is the only player not from African descent who has joined the fray. In the 1960s and 1970s white NBA players like Carl Braun to Bill Walton spoke out in support of the black freedom struggle. They believed that a world based on a universally recognized human dignity was worth standing for. Today, to take even a cursory look at the protests outside the arena would be to witness people black, brown and white coming together with the shared slogan that Black Lives Matter. It would be great to see white NBA players take their share of this weight. As LeBron James said, “It’s not a Cavs thing. It’s a worldly thing.” If you are part of this world, it is time to stand up and be counted.
A version of this story appears in SLAM 185, which hits newsstands in a couple of weeks.
Dave Zirin is a SLAM contributor and the Sports Editor of The Nation. Follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.