James never even commented on Rice’s killing or the grand jury decision, saying he didn’t feel comfortable because he had not closely followed the story. The notion of James sitting was roundly dismissed as unrealistic. Sports and fatal police shootings intersected, but only in a glancing fashion.
“The entire U.S. clutches its pearls when you mention something like that,” Toure said. “I don’t see people really entertaining that idea or understanding the magnitude of [athletes’] power. Imagine everybody lining up to see a game, all the players get suited up and then walk back inside the tunnel. They don’t get quite get the magnitude of that statement: If my black life doesn’t matter outside the store, then my black life doesn’t matter when it’s time for you to sit on your couch to watch football.”
Sports and fatal police shootings intersected again this week. The filmed killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., which occurred less than 48 hours apart, incited horror and fury across the country. The reaction spread through the sports world in the form of social media, athletes tweeting and posting outraged and thoughtful responses to the killings.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick posted video of the shooting on his Instagram page, writing underneath the image: “This is what lynchings look like in 2016!” he wrote. “Another murder in the streets because the color of a man’s skin, at the hands of the people who they say will protect us. When will they be held accountable? Or did he fear for his life as he executed this man?”
Louisiana State running back Leonard Fournette tweeted, “Alton sterling” above a photograph of himself wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a photograph of Sterling’s smiling face.
Olympic wrestler Jordan Burroughs wrote, “It’s sad that someday I will have to teach my son police etiquette. Either be quiet and completely submissive or risk being shot.”
Washington Redskins defensive players Duke Ihenacho and Chris Baker each tweeted a string of anguished protests.
Saints running back Mark Ingram tweeted, “Hashtags aren’t enough. Justice for _____ isn’t enough. We have to stop this together. We have to love and respect each other. This is cray.”
If hashtags are not enough, though, it raises the question about what responsibility athletes carry as activists. Many high-profile college and professional athletes made their anger visible through social media in the wake of the most recent police killings of black men. Their activism has stopped there almost exclusively. It may be unfair to ask athletes to attend protests or take grander action, but some pointed to their influence as a reason for athletes to make stronger stands than sending words, no matter how genuine or poignant, into cyberspace.
Social media “would be a form of participation,” said Mel Hamilton, an activist who was thrown off the Wyoming football team in 1969 as part of the Black 14. “I think a more direct form of participation – being there – is more important, more powerful. Social media is fine if that’s all you can do. If you can do more, man, you should do more.”
Louisiana NAACP President Dr. Ernest Johnson, who is based in Baton Rouge, said he did not see any athletes at various protests of Sterling’s death. But he also said he did not see an issue with that in the immediate aftermath. He instead called on athletes to make investments into impoverished areas.
“The advocacy of speaking out is good, because people need to know where people stand,” Johnson said in a phone conversation. “We need some more skin in the game. We have to redirect monies back into the community. Let’s look at some real economic reinvestments in the community.
“I think it means more if you’re there doing something positive after. What’s going on right now is the emotional reaction to the killing of Mr. Sterling. The biggest thing we can do now is allow people to express their emotional dissatisfaction. I don’t know if it’s the proper thing for an athlete who’s not an activist. The NAACP is the activist. It’s our job. There are some athletes who are activists. But that might be out of character for others.”
Toure, who played football at Bowie State, remains convinced of the power black athletes hold and the impact a boycott could have. He advocated for the LSU football team to dress and refuse to walk out of the tunnel in protest of Sterling’s death, and stated his belief that black players should refuse to play for the Olympic basketball team. Toure made clear he understood the radical nature of the idea. In his mind, the situation requires a radical response.
“How could you play? How could you play?” Toure said. “How could you represent a country that in absence of a basketball or your notoriety, you’re just another person that could be murdered by the state? How could you play, is my question. How could you put that across your chest? It’s been extreme since we were on the boats to come here. Situations like the last two days punctuate the extremes we face. I think the extremes are necessary.”
Toure reached the conclusion after other forms of protest achieved little progress. He pointed to the Miami Heat posing as a team for an Instagram photo in hooded sweatshirts following the killing of Trayvon Martin. The protest was hailed as powerful, but Toure wonders what it and other gestures – such as NBA players wearing t-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” after a police officer choked Eric Garner to death in New York – ultimately accomplished.
“There’s not going to be another Ali in 1,000 years,” Toure said. “The point is, we got to really do better with the next generation of young athletes to get them to understand their power. A hoodie didn’t do it. Wearing a hoodie in the locker room didn’t do. [George Zimmerman] still walked. Wearing an I Can’t Breathe t-shirt didn’t do it. [The cop] still walked.
“I think we have put them on such a pedestal from even when they’re little, we don’t even have those conversations with our young athletes. We’re not having a conversation about the politics of Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali. We’re having a conversation about how you can be the next Jordan or the next Jerry Rice. We’re not having those conversations. Sitting out doesn’t even cross their minds. They’re not even educated to have that type of radical thought.”
In 1969, Hamilton and 13 teammates asked their coach at Wyoming, Lloyd Eaton, permission to wear a black arm band against Brigham Young to protest the LDS Church’s policy of disallowing blacks from joining the priesthood. Eaton threw them all off the team. Hamilton lived with racism and fallout from the decision for years. From his perspective, he would like to see athletes do what they can, and in most cases, Hamilton believes that extends beyond social media commentary.
“I don’t expect LeBron to go from Cleveland to Baton Rouge,” Hamilton said. “But I expect whoever is closer to Baton Rouge to be there. I would be tickled if LeBron did it, but it should be someone closer to the community. You would think there’s enough well-known and influential people that would jump to the cause. They are very influential, if they know it or not. They should use that influence to help America regain their consciousness about social issues.”
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