Six athletes who stood up for Black lives

July 11, 2016

Nation columnist Dave Zirin takes note of some welcome voices of resistance.

PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES have provided a flicker of hope during these agonizing days by speaking out against police violence. "Shut up and play" clearly doesn't fly when Black bodies are falling at the hands of those whose job is to serve and protect. In fact, it's almost surprising now when football and basketball players--the two sports most dependent on Black labor--don't speak out. We saw this after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in 2014.

Now, after the filmed deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, athletes' statements--which have the potential to reach an audience far beyond the normal political blather--are starting up yet again. Here are six that I think are special:

Carmelo Anthony: The New York Knicks star unleashed a mini-manifesto about the need for athletes to speak out. The most potent--and perhaps even historic--part of his missive is when he wrote, "There's NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can't worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or who's going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. I'M all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE." Not since Muhammad Ali--whom Melo references earlier--has someone taken on the endorsers as a point of political pride. Granted, Ali said, "God damn the white man's money!" but it's a step in that direction: independence from those who seek to "brand" and muzzle athletes.

New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony marches against police violence in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's murder
New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony marches against police violence in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's murder

Serena Williams: Arguably the planet's most important athlete, she took a break from the middle of playing for a Wimbledon title to speak out. "In London I have to wake up to this. He was Black. Shot 4 times? When will something be done--no REALLY be done?!?!" She then posted a description of what happened to Philando Castile. But beyond words, Serena also gave us a hell of an image on the Wimbledon's grass court, raising her fist in the style of John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the 1968 Olympics. No official word yet on whether it was intentional, but few athletes are more self-aware about their representative power, and her intent is always to leave a mark.

Bradley Beal: The Wizards guard stood his ground in a manner rarely seen when athletes get pushback for their words. After posting the hashtag #blacklivesmatter on the same night the Dallas police officer sniper shootings took place, he was flooded with criticism, accused by Internet scolds of being "insensitive." He also was hit with #AllLivesMatter as a response. Beal did not issue a hurried apology. Instead, he wrote, "The issue at hand regards my race and I have every right to speak on it! If you don't like it, it's a big ass UNFOLLOW button on the top of my page! Saying all lives matter is like saying we all need air to breathe! We all know that!!!! Killing a cop is no better than a cop taking a life! Innocent Black lives are being taken by those sworn to protect and serve, not murder! When does it come to an end? And you wonder why people rage? We aren't getting justice, just more body counts! People are getting sick of this sh*t! So yes, Black Lives Matter!"

Leonard Fournette: The Heisman hopeful and Louisiana State University star running back posed wearing an Alton Sterling T-shirt. Fournette resonates because he plays in Baton Rouge, where Alton Sterling was killed. More importantly, he is a college athlete with far less protection to speak without fear of reprisal than the pros. Anytime a college football player shows some politics, it sends a shiver down the spine of the NCAA: a rickety, morally bankrupt multibillion-dollar nonprofit entirely dependent on the compliance of 18- to 22-year-olds.

Cheryl Reeve: The Minnesota Lynx coach tweeted, "To rebut BLM with 'All Lives Matter' implies that all lives are equally at risk, and they're not. #BlackLivesMatter doesn't mean your life isn't important if you aren't Black--it means that Black lives, which are seen without value within White supremacy, are important." It's a strong, explicitly political statement, more direct than what other players and coaches in the WNBA have said. (See this link). Plus, her local leadership following the killing of Philando Castile right outside of St. Paul has a powerful echo.

Huston Street: The last statement of note is from the Angels pitcher, who tweeted, "Pray for #PhilandoCastile and #AltonSterling families and then demand justice, my nephews are young Black men and their future depends on it." Why does this comment resonate? He's a white baseball player. The response from white, male athletes, as well as any outrage from the world of Major League Baseball, has been close to nonexistent. As for baseball, after all these years, the sport still treats political activism with the respect of a Jose Bautista bat-flip.

One thing is clear: White athletes need to step it up. As I've written before, it is absurd that the entire weight of speaking out against these racist murders is placed on the shoulders of Black athletes. Black lives are under constant threat. If white athletes truly care about their Black and Brown teammates, if they really are a "family" like every squad says, then they should take some of the damn weight. They can learn a lesson from the white football players at Missouri who stood with their Black teammates when they refused to play unless the school president, Tim Wolfe, was removed. Please listen up, white athletes: If you see what's happening, say something. Solidarity at this moment is not only key to winning a better world. It's a profound moral imperative.

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