In Recent Decades, Athletes Have Been Apolitical. Why Now Are They Finally Starting to Speak Out?

Since the grand jury failed to indict officers in the killing of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York, professional and collegiate athletes are showing solidarity by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups. The reference is also being chanted by tens of thousands of Americans demanding justice and an end to racially motivated police brutality in America, but it has also been met with some opposition from the general public and police unions.

One of the earliest acts of solidarity occurred close to Ferguson, Missouri, the site of Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. St. Louis Rams players entered the field during Week 13 of the NFL season with their arms raised, referencing the young man’s final words “hands up, don’t shoot”. 

Ironically, the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA) condemned the players for their action. The association issued a statement shortly after the on-field protest, demanding the St. Louis Rams apologize for offending police.

“The St. Louis Police Officers Association is profoundly disappointed with the members of the St. Louis Rams football team who chose to ignore the mountains of evidence released from the St. Louis County Grand Jury this week and engage in a display that police officers around the country found tasteless, offensive and inflammatory,” the statement read.

Other players did not leave him frustrated. Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, an outspoken social justice advocate, wrote “I Can’t Breathe” on his practice jersey ahead of an early December game against Tampa Bay. That same Sunday, other players also donned similar shirts to continue their stalwart belief that change must happen.

Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose followed Bush’s example by also wearing a similar shirt in solidarity. And so did Cleveland Cavaliers star Lebron James.

President Barack Obama, who has largely tried to remain in the center of the public opinion battle over the police killings, praised James for wearing the shirt. 

“I think Lebron did the right thing,” the president told People. “We forget the role Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness. I’d like to see more athletes do that – not just around the issue, but around a range of issues.”

While police and their supporters have ridiculed the players for their actions, most Americans, especially those on the streets, and commentators, have responded with praise and admiration. 

“In variously amplified voices, from the first moments after Michael Brown's killing but with a new peevish unanimity after the Rams' hands-up entry in Week 13, the declaration has gone out: enough is enough,” wrote David Roth in a Gawker article detailing the emotions and nuance of the nascent protest movement now blooming across the United States. 

“Not that enough police impunity was enough; or that enough unaccountable shield-thumping aspiring robocops rolling out of armored personnel carriers are enough; or that we'd at last gotten a bellyful of seeing fellow humans killed without reason or repercussion by the state. Decidedly not that,” he added.

The Michael Jordan Complex

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when racially charged police brutality was at another peak, culminating with Rodney King’s dramatic police beating that sparked the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the officers in the brutal violence captured on camera by a bystander. The violence that LA witnessed remains among the worst public disturbances of the past century in the US, but it failed to garner the similar responses being seen today from athletes.

Notably absent from commentating on public affairs during that period was Michael Jordan. As arguably the most influential athlete of his time, his silence was criticized by many. Black Americans had sought guidance and support from the man whose name had become synonymous with branding. The Air Jordan was a major coup for Nike and established Jordan as a household name even before he become the best basketball player of all-time.

Inspiring for Justice

Many observers of the current situation are hopeful that the trend toward peaceful, disruptive protests will be a watershed moment for the country, whereby young black people will be allowed to speak out and tell their stories of life in America. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, protesters are continuing to put pressure on the authorities.

While the efforts of star athletes like James, Rose, and Bush are being lauded in many circles, the battle for justice and change continues to have a hold on American public life. Streets and highways have been shut down. For the first time in decades, there appears to be a keen sense to push forward, to speak out and tell the true story of injustice and inequality in America.

“It’s just for us to understand what we’re going through as a society,” James said before wearing the shirt in pregame warm-ups in Brooklyn. “I’ve been forwarded over and over about what’s been going on. This is more of a notion to the family more than anything. As a society we have to do better. We have to be better for one another no matter what race you are.”