The number of professional athletes donning “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-ups before NFL and NBA games is definitely increasing. The “silent” protest and statement about the death of New York’s Eric Garner and the growing movement to draw attention to police mistreatment of black and other minority people is definitely hard to miss. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and, in some cases, entire teams have donned the T-shirts before NBA games. In the NFL, Reggie Bush and others have done the same, making it impossible for cameras — and millions of people watching the games and seeing the images — to miss the message.
But of course, there are those who think athletes should not be using sports to make political statements and that fans and advertisers just want them to be quiet and play ball, like they are paid to do.
Clearly these athletes don’t agree. And neither do I. Being a professional athlete and getting a paycheck, no matter how big, doesn’t mean you don’t have opinions. Indeed athletes are in a unique position as role models to have a huge impact when making statements such as these. The athletes are not wearing these statements during games. They are not interrupting post-game interviews talking about this issue. They are wearing T-shirts while warming up. I think it is the smartest way they could let it be known that they are in solidarity without totally forcing their view down fans’ throats. By the way, there are those out there who feel the same way about activist film and TV stars; that they should not express political opinions publicly or use their celebrity on behalf of causes.
Why it is that some people believe being famous, talented and rich eliminates your right to have or express an opinion on things that matter is beyond me.
But apparently, even some pro athletes are uncomfortable with some of their brethren making these political or social statements. Eli Manning, the quarterback of the New York Giants, recently said this in an interview when the subject of these T-shirt protests came up: “Obviously, when we’re on the field, we’re wearing our uniforms. You know there’s a time and place to make your statements. I don’t know if it’s always during a game ... I think you’ve got to be smart about when you want to say something.”
As if they are aren’t being smart, I suppose.
And, of course, there are those who say sponsors will be turned off as well as many fans, who in essence help pay the bills by going to the games and buying the merchandise.
But people also need to be smart enough or not so ignorant when it comes to the role of sports and social issues. Sports has always been an area where social issues have been put front and center — often in a big way. Have these people never heard of Jackie Robinson? Branch Rickey, The Brooklyn Dodger executive who decided to bring the first black player into major league baseball, was making the ultimate political and social statement. A T-shirt? What’s bigger and more prominent than Robinson’s own skin? It was a brave and bold statement that things needed to change. And despite many fans’ protestations and the financial risk from sponsors and other money, Rickey and Robinson made their statement, not during warm-ups but during games, and the game changed. And most would say their statement also changed our society well beyond sports.
So people need to get over themselves. Athletes are citizens and have the right to respectfully stand up on important matters. I would argue for rich black athletes to “say” nothing about what is a huge issue right now in the black community would make them look uncaring about regular people, and that would open them up for a whole different level of criticism. They are doing the right thing — and doing it the right way. This issue is way too important, and they have too much of an opportunity to draw attention to it.
So keep wearing those T-shirts, fellows. Lots of us support you even more than we did before for having the guts to do it. Their message is clear: There are some things bigger than shooting or catching a ball.
Photo Credit: NY Daily News