You could say it started when Derrick Rose donned an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt in memory of NYPD chokehold victim Eric Garner for warm-ups before the Chicago Bulls-Golden State Warriors game last weekend. Or you could trace it back a few days earlier, when St. Louis Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook wore wrist bands that read “I Can’t Breathe.” Push it back another week or so and call the beginning the moment Britt encouraged his teammates to put their hands in the air in solidarity with those protesting the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson.
Regardless of when you believe it started, something big is definitely going on in major league sports in this country. You might call it a silent protest. You might call it defiance. You might even call it social justice. And it revives a debate that may be as old as professional sports in this country: should athletes express their social, political, cultural, and religious ideas at work? Or should they just shut up and play?
Now, as a general practice, I try to avoid the most annoying corners of the Internet as they are chock-full of stupid. Obviously, this means I limit my time on Facebook. But on occasion, it’s interesting to see what one’s old high school chemistry teacher’s fifth cousin thinks about politics, so I checked out some comments under a popular photo of some of the Brooklyn Nets with Jay-Z at the Nets-Cavs game the other night, the one where Prince William and Kate Middleton hung out with Beyoncé. (You know, a typical night for all of us here in Brooklyn.) Most comments were positive.
But sprinkled around like dog crap on a park meadow were comments like, “They don’t get paid to have opinions” and “If I wanted to see that on TV I’d ask for it” and “Sports are supposed to be FUN.” The one that stood out to me the most was the age-old chestnut “Shut up and play.” It came from a white guy, which didn’t exactly surprise me when I contemplated the fact that we were talking about black athletes protesting the treatment of black men in America, but the sentiment still seemed odd.
It was strange to me because the impassioned sports fan in question seemed so ignorant of the roles sports figures have historically taken in our country with regard to civil rights, war and peace, freedom of religion, and other human rights issues. Had he never heard of Cleveland Browns legend and civil rights activist Jim Brown? How about fellow football great John Wooten, once the director of the Black Economic Union? Was he unfamiliar with the esteemed six-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose activism continues today, or Celtics vet Bill Russell, who never hid his sometimes-controversial views? Did he live under a rock where there never was and never would be talk of Muhammad Ali, a man who famously refused service in Vietnam on account of his personal beliefs?
The legacy of sports is intertwined with the legacy of social justice movements, of political movements, of religious movements. How many athletes make sure to thank God whenever a mic is nearby? Would the pissed-off guy on Facebook argue their right to do so? How different is that from pledging allegiance to the notion that death by cop is an unacceptable response to suspicion of criminal activity? We’re talking about people’s moral values and beliefs here, and if they want to express them, they ought to express them.
Now there’s a difference between wearing a uniform with league insignia while protesting outside a women’s health clinic (something I hope never happens) and expressing one’s views on reproductive health in an ESPN interview (something I do hope happens, because why the hell not? It’s a free country). I’m not saying a player should bring his job to his activism. But why not bring his activism to his job? If he still fulfills his (or her) role to the team, why not also engage in a tasteful display of freedom of speech?
In an ESPN interview that aired today, even the President said he’s proud of athletes for expressing their views. Freedom of expression is one of the main things that makes this nutty, mixed-up, fucked-up country so damn beautiful. Why should we deny an athlete his right to speak out, just because he’s wealthy, or he’s having a good/bad season, or he’s under contract, or [fill in the blank silly excuse]? Why should we demand that he be a robot programmed only to run, throw, catch, and jump? We know he’s wearing Adidas or Nike or whatever under that “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt. We know because of the million commercials and the endless signage in the venue and the sponsored segments at half time and all the rest. Adidas and Nike are not going to suffer because LeBron decided to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt for a half hour. They’ll live.
There is something unfortunate about a sports fan who seems to see athletes solely as performers for his amusement. If you think that way, turn off the game and go play a game — Madden won’t ever have opinions. Otherwise, recognize that these professionals, sickeningly well-paid though they may be, are allowed to use their power and their platform to respectfully express an idea.
Because yeah, it’s just a game. And it’s also so much more than that.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.