Last Tuesday night The Los Angeles Lakers led by their superstar shooting guard Kobe Bryant took the floor at the Staples Center to battle the Sacramento Kings. They did so wearing the now popular “I Can’t Breath” T-Shirts that have become a symbol of police brutality and misconduct in the wake of Eric Garner’s death, they also followed in footsteps of Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers who both did the same days earlier.
The topic of black and brown people dying at the hands of police officers should be seen as a serious problem that needs eradicating and not like mere fodder for radio and television programmers who are hoping for a spike in ratings, but then what’s America without a good controversy.
CBS College Basketball analyst and radio talk show host Doug Gottlieb–I can just hear the collective “who the hell is Doug Gottlieb” expressions–logged onto his Twitter account Tuesday night just so he could tell Bryant to “stay in his lane.”
No one should be surprised about Gottlieb’s stance, much in the way that no one should have been surprised about the stance that a columnist from the Chicago American took toward Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their “black power salute” on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Brent Musberger, whose name is now famous in the sports broadcasting world once wrote that Smith and Carlos were “a pair of black skinned stormtroopers” and said that “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of the country.”
Time has not only vindicated Smith and Carlos it has exalted them as men who were willing to sacrifice their careers for something that was extremely important. The real problem is that time hasn’t enlightened a clown like Gottlieb and it hasn’t assisted him in the ability to learn from Musberger’s mistakes. Gottlieb and Musberger are coming from a place that tells men like Rose, James, and Bryant that they aren’t black anymore because they won the athletic lottery and have the ability to remove themselves from the everyday struggles that the average black person experiences. The difference is there will be no Charles Barkley’s to denounce and public shame Gottlieb and Musberger the way that Barkley denounced and publicly shamed members of the Seattle Seahawks who apparently thought that their Quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t black enough.
This current crop of suddenly vocal NBA players are emblematic of what can be described as a renaissance. The sports landscape was once littered with men like Smith, Carlos, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali who never viewed themselves as “brands” and didn’t think that becoming the first billion dollar athlete was a goal that needed to be met. Russell, the league’s biggest name in the 1960’s once returned the symbolic key to the city of Marion, Indiana to it’s mayor because he and his black Boston Celtic teammates were denied service at a local restaurant. Ali, the decades biggest sports name overall had the three prime years of his career taken away from him when he was banned from the sport because he refused to serve in an immoral war for a country that viewed him and people who looked like him as less than.
James, Bryant, and Rose aren’t Ali and Russell, they are already parsing their language concerning the T-Shirts and they have also gone out their way to not ruffle feathers concerning the issues of race and policing while doing so. I’ll settle for that because it is a hell of a lot more than what we usually get from pro athletes who normally clam up when they are asked about anything that doesn’t involve the field of play.
Between Ali’s retirement from boxing in 1981 and Rose’s wardrobe choice last Saturday night black athletes have pretty much fallen into two categories. NFL and NBA players were either taking the “never say anything about anything other than football and basketball” approach of Michael Jordan or they were following the “black people are the worst” respectability politics course that the aforementioned Barkley has been publicly lauded for.
What the guys of today are currently proving is that you don’t have to do either one. In 2012 it was James–with his then Miami Heat teammates–who organized a public show of support for the family of Trayvon Martin when Barkley was on the other side of that issue. It’s also James, Rose, and Bryant who are showing that when you take stands like these it doesn’t mean that your earning power is going to be diminished. These particular players are involved with an array of corporate sponsors and not one has cut ties with them, (thus far) and NBA commissioner Adam Silver has already said that the three will not be fined for donning the shirts. And if these protests from all of the league’s players continue is Silver really going to go to battle over this issue that has enthralled the entire nation, my guess would be no and that would prove that athletes in major team sports really do have a tremendous amount of power.
2014 is not 1968 in a lot of ways, but the one thing that can’t be disputed is that racism is still an obstacle for people of color. Issues of police misconduct, racial profiling, and biased officials within the justice system are things that every black and brown person in America should be vocal on no matter their zip codes and the size of the bank accounts. They should also do it because the likelihood is that they come from communities that are rampant with police misconduct, racial profiling, and biased officials in the justice system.
Unfortunately we will just have to continue to educate the Doug Gottlieb’s of the world.