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Players inspired by players

Advancing social justice through the actions of activist athletes

We usually have a warped version of the way things used to be. I heard somewhere that the more you access memories, the less accurate they become. With that in mind, the early 90’s were a fantastic time to be a kid. According to my mind’s eye, my childhood was filled with skittles, rollerblading, learning how to flirt with girls and a whole lot of basketball.

I did in fact spend hours on the basketball court. Usually I played with other military brats, but often it was just me, the ball, and the hoop. I like to think I did this out of pure dedication and love of the game—a young boy with dreams of basketball glory and that if I stayed on that court just long enough I could manifest my own real life role in Michael Jordan’s Playground. For those who may not remember, the movie came out in 1991 and documented MJ’s rise to his first finals victory alongside the narrative of another young African American kid when he was a cut from his high school basketball team.

There’s a memorable scene between the kid and MJ in which I replace myself as the kid like this: I play basketball all day with my friends and stay long after everyone else goes home. I shoot bricks until sun starts to drop behind the high-rise apartments. I can’t allow myself to go home on a brick so I take one last shot. A swish! And the ball rolls to the feet of Michael Jordan who gracefully picks it up and says, “Nice shot, I see you’ve been practicing,” he says with a championship smile. I gaze in amazement. “I know you like to play alone. You don’t mind if I shoot with you, do ya?”

In anticipation, I have not only been practicing my jump shot, but also the look I would give MJ—a look of calm bewilderment.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

I feel it’s safe to say that millions of other kids have had eerily similar delusions.

During this time, MJ was climbing to the top of the NBA and to a billion dollar industry as well. His influence would eventually dwarf any held by his sports contemporaries. Kids around the world consumed him with fervor.

For many people of my age, Michael Jordan played a significant role in our understanding of the world. Not only did he set the standard of greatness, he also represented a wholesome success. He was flash, brilliance and hard work, all wrapped up in a handsome persona. None of his off court fumbles ever penetrated the psyche of an eleven-year-old kid.

Michael Jordan taught many kids many different lessons. The one with deepest repercussions, however, wasn’t his ability to come through at clutch moments, but his absence from any matter concerning social justice.

There was plenty of opportunity. In the early 90’s, while Michael Jordan was building the foundation of a dynasty, the U.S. military was busy developing the Gulf War, apartheid was coming to a close, and NAFTA was being signed.

It may be unrealistic to imagine MJ taking a stand on carpet bombing and trade agreements, but we also saw the uprisings in Los Angeles over police brutality and Magic Johnson was making headlines by announcing he had contracted HIV. These were two pivotal moments in history and two occasions we heard little if anything from not only MJ but the majority of well-known sports figures.

Perhaps the defining example of MJ’s dedication to social ambivalence was in 1990. When asked if he would support black candidate Harvey Gnatt in his attempt to unseat Senator Jesse Helms—a politician who opposed the creation of a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—Michael Jordan declined, later telling a friend that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Regardless of their decision to engage in civic dialogue, professional athletes have an impact on our culture. Whether they take the social ambivalent route of MJ or the loud and proud approach of Muhammad Ali, their choices have far reaching effects on a population obsessed with sports. Now that I have outgrown of my Air Jordan’s, the point is beyond why MJ failed to support Harvey Gnatt, but what roles should professional athletes take in creating learning environments for the children who aspire to be like them?

Fortunately today we don’t have far to search to find examples of prominent athletes sharing in the legacy of Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others. A significant number of athletes and star athletes are deeply involved in their communities’ issues both on and off the court. The Jordan wanna-be’s of today have plenty of well-rounded role models from which to choose and that over recent months the actions taken by high-profile athletes have profound benefits for people working towards social change.

When the failure to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo sparked a national outrage over police brutality, basketball player Derrick Rose wore a shirt stating “I Can’t Breathe” in a game against the Golden State Warriors. This prompted LeBron James (LBJ) of the Cleveland Cavaliers to comment, “It’s spectacular, I loved it. I’m looking for one.”

LBJ wore his shirt soon after, along with fellow player, Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets, whom they played against, had also donned the shirts. President Obama applauded James’ effort saying he “did the right thing.” In a display of just how far the conversation about sports and politics has come, Obama continued,

“We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.”

Soon enough, high profile players all over the NBA could be seen commemorating the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and the all the other black men, women and children who have been murdered by police. The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers all had players who showed support for victims of police brutality.

Lakers franchise player, Kobe Bryant, said it wasn’t about race but about justice. “It’s important that we have our opinions. It’s important that we stand up for what we believe in.”

Derrick Rose, who had previously been active in his hometown of Chicago, spoke poignantly about his decision, “I grew up and I saw it every day… I saw the violence every day.”

Basketball stars weren’t the only ones to participate in the conversation. Prior to the Garner decision, five NFL players for the St. Louis Rams raised their hands in the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” action during their pregame introductions. Washington Safety Ryan Clark said, “Brown could have been any one of us. He could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins…”

College athletes also speak out

Beyond the world of men’s professional sports, collegiate athletes broadened the response by wearing a variety of shirts with similar messages. We can see the direct impact such actions have on both teams and their communities.

On November 29, Knox College Women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith [who The Nation called the “the first athlete activist of #BlackLivesMatter”] courageously performed a one-woman demonstration at the Knox College v. Fontbonne University game held in Clayton, Missouri. During the national anthem, Ariyana walked with her hands up in a ‘hand ups, don’t shoot’ gesture towards the American flag and laid on the ground for 4.5 minutes to bring awareness to the police killing of Michael Brown, whose body was left in the street for 4.5 hours. She was suspended for one game. A few days later the college reversed the decision after talking with other members of the team.

In an interview with a local television station, Ariyana said, “I could not go into that gymnasium and pretend that everything was okay.”

On Saturday, December 13, the University of California’s women’s basketball team, wore shirts that read Black Lives Matter and We Are Cal on the back. On the front of their shirts each player had the name of an African-American who was killed by police or by lynching, along with the date of death.

This statement put police brutality in a historical context. Although it was somewhat at odds with the viewpoint of their NBA counterparts whose comments were directed more towards support for the family and “justice,” the women at Cal added to the national conversation about the root of the problem between police and people of color. By providing examples throughout US history, the women demonstrated that the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated incidents, simply the most recentin a long line of police violence against communities of color.

On December 13, in a game versus Michigan, the Notre Dame Women’s basketball team wore pre-game warm up shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” They also posted pictures on Twitter, accompanied thequote, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

The women were supported by their coach Muffet McGraw. In a post-game press conference, McGraw addressed the teams decision to take a stand, “I was really proud of our team…You have to be willing to stand up and fight.” Mr. McGraw add, “These are the lessons that I want them to learn. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand.”

Having the support of their coach is undoubtedly a major factor in allowing student athletes to feel empowered, knowing they have the ability to help make change.

Activism at the junior level

No team at the collegiate or professional level appeared to have dealt with the amount of controversy that was created around the decisions of some high school basketball players around the country. One of the more inspiring examples of athletes taking a stand came far from any ESPN reporters or corporate-sponsored stadiums.

In Northern California, the Mendocino Girls and Boys basketball teams were disinvited to a tournament hosted by nearby Fort Bragg High School. The athletic director at Fort Bragg High informed the team from Mendocino they wouldn’t be allowed to play over concern that players planned to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Fort Bragg officials said they worried about the reaction some people would have to the shirts and that they were too small a school to deal with such a situation.

A couple days later, the teams were re-invited to the tournament. The school district reversed its ban indicating the shirts would be allowed as long as they caused no problems. A First Amendment lawyer, who represented one of the players, shared that the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of the student athletes.

In the end, the girls team did not participate in the tournament, but the boys team did. Regardless, the decision by the athletes to stand up for something they believed in caused ripples throughout Mendocino county as well as leading international coverage of the situation and certainly local residents have been impacted, including the coach of the Mendocino girls team,

The girls offered a thoughtful explanation for their decision in a public letter:

“The Mendocino High School Varsity girls and boys basketball teams made the decision to wear the shirts without the initial encouragement of any parent, coach or other adult. We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public.”

These girls provide an inspiring example of the capacity of student/athletes to take the lead and continue the conversation.

Across the country, in Hartford, CT, “I Can’t Breathe” shirts received a different reaction when worn by members of the Weaver high school basketball team. Their coach, Reggie Hatchett, referred to the influence of NBA players in their decision.

“LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, some NBA teams and others, like the Notre Dame women’s team, have worn the shirts. So Weaver will, too,” Coach Hatchett continued, “Wearing the shirts shows our pride in our team’s multi-ethnicity…We are socially responsible and aware of what is right.

“When you have young men under your wing, there’s a serious responsibility not just to teach them sports, but also make them understand the community that they live in.”

Students meet resistance

On December 12, another group of student/athletes were inspired to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to demonstrate solidarity with those who are fighting against racial inequities in the criminal justice system. High school basketball players from Salt Lake City—Kleahl Parker, Daurice Mouelle and James Kauli—watched NBA players wearing the shirts and were moved to join the national conversation.

Although they had their coaches support and permission, the school’s administration did not agree. Though the students were welcome to wear the shirts to school, as basketball players they would be representing the school and the shirts would not be allowed.

During a game on December 18, the boys wore their shirts during warm-ups and started the game in them. During the second quarter, the assistant coach was approached by the principal who told him the boys couldn’t wear the shirts while on the bench. None of the boys removed their shirts.

At halftime the assistant principal met the boys at the locker room door and informed them wearing the shirts was a violation of Utah High School Activities Association rules. The boys who were wearing them agreed to either removed or covered them.

[Ed. note: Though a few days later the school’s administrators admitted they had errored and that the wearing of the shirts do not violate Association rules, they maintained the ban because the basketball games are school-sponsored.]

The boys promised to keep wearing their shirts even if they were under their uniforms because they wanted to educate people about the effects of racism. As young black men living in a predominantly white area, the boys had their own experiences with racism.

Student Daurice Mouelle stated, “Every time when I go out, my mom is always telling me to be careful. Don’t do anything stupid because of all of the things that have been happening. People judge you by your skin color, even though they don’t know you. And you never know what might happen to you when you go out, even if you’re not doing anything bad.”

The courageous actions of athletes

The students from Salt Lake City and other athletes from around the country are a vital part of the broader #blacklivesmatter movement. The moments that are experienced in and around the wearing of the shirts—the dinner conversations that were sparked, the interactions between students, school officials and community members, the sense of empowerment that often accompanies defiant acts—encourage young people to have confidence in themselves and in their beliefs.

The student-athletes learned a valuable lesson in participatory democracy and civic dialogue. Because of the courageous acts of these young people the community at large was exposed to lessons in dealing with adversity, engaging in political debate and expanding comfort zones. Moving forward, it’s important to remember that these examples are part of a revolutionary process, not to be consumed and tossed aside but to be valued and continued.

Regardless of who instigated the momentum, we do know that “basketball season as usual” was interrupted for many communities around the country.

These days I still spend a considerable amount of time on the basketball court demonstrating that some things never change. I still put up more than my fair share of bricks; however, I no longer have skittle-induced dreams about larger than life athletes materializing before me and whisking me off to basketball stardom. This time around I think of Ariyana Smith more often than Michael Jordan and the profoundly different playground that she and others have provided for the young basketball players of today.

Asaya Plumly is a local educator, anarchist and over the hill basketball player. A direct link to his unedited version can be found on his blog at


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