On speaking up, using your platforms, and taking big risks

July was a very difficult month in the United States. At the beginning of the month, Alton Sterling was killed by two officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A few days later, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. On July seventh in Dallas, Texas, five police officers were killed by Micah Johnson during a non-violent rally in the middle of the month. On the 17th, three officers were killed by Gavin Long in Baton Rouge. The day after that shooting, local therapist Charles Kinsey was shot by a police officer in Miami, Florida. Taken together, these events have led to even more discussions about the police’s relationships with the community, how they react to situations, the use (or lack of) of deescalation techniques by police officers, access to guns in the community, access to mental health services, and the role elected officials have in keeping everyone safe.

In the world of basketball, those events continued a dialogue that has been going on over the past couple of years. In 2012, players on the Miami Heat donned black hoodies in protest of the killing of Trayvon Martin. In 2014, Derrick Rose donned an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt after a grand jury in Staten Island, New York declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer that was seen choking Eric Garner on camera. Rose was joined by various players across the league. In July, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade opened ESPN’s ESPY awards with an impassioned plea to call for better relations between the police and the community they serve. Anthony has been using his platform to push for Earlier that day, he wrote an article for the Guardian imploring his fellow athletes to speak up on the major social issues of the day. And yesterday, he held a town hall with athletes, law enforcement, activists, and members of the community in Los Angeles.

In the league offices, they made a big stand of their own. In North Carolina, the state legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, otherwise known as HB2 (aka the “Bathroom Bill”). The Charlotte Observer has an analysis of the bill, and these are the key aspects of it:

The state has long had laws regulating workplace discrimination, use of public accommodations, minimum wage standards and other business issues. The new law — known as HB2, the Charlotte bathroom bill or, more officially, as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — makes it illegal for cities to expand upon those state laws, as more than a dozen cities had done, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham.
Yes. The law limits how people pursue claims of discrimination because of race, religion, color, national origin, biological sex or handicap in state courts. The law also means a city or county cannot set a minimum wage standard for private employers.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver vocalized the league’s opposition to the bill and made the decision to move the 2017 All Star Game from Charlotte. Aside from criticism from NC Governor Pat McRory and Hornets co-owner Felix Sabates, the decision was met with almost universal approval across the NBA and social media. In another pro basketball league, we’ve seen the athletes push for change in an even more dramatic way.

On July 9th, players from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the five officers killed in Dallas. The local police union condemned the players, but they drew support from a variety of sources, including Adam Silver. He encouraged the players to speak out on various issues using a wide variety of platforms, but preferred players not make changes to the uniforms while doing it. It’s similar to what he said in 2014 about players who wore “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts. WNBA President Lisa Borders shared that sentiment and fined the players (as well as their teams) $500 for the infractions. The players continued to protest despite the fines. Here’s what former All Star and current WNBA Players Association Vice President Tina Charles had to say about the fines:

Seventy percent of the@wnba players are African-American women and as a league collectively impacted. My teammates and I will continue to use our platform and raise awareness for the #BlackLivesMatter movement until the @wnba gives its support as it does for Breast Cancer Awareness, Pride and other subject matters.

Thanks to the persistence of the players and the support of the public, the fines were rescinded on the 23rd.

The activism of the WNBA players is something we should remember going forward. These players have been affected by the violence being inflicted on their communities and we’re willing to press on despite financial pressure from the league. The reported maximum salary in the WNBA is a little over $100,000 a year with average salaries around $72,000. Losing money along with drawing the ire of police unions and sections of the fanbase is a big risk, but the players stood by their principles and withstood the pressure being placed upon them by the league.

The activism by the players and league this month has worked to inspire their peers. Washington Wizards Bradley Beal attended the Presidential Town Hall and is looking for ways to better help the community. More surprisingly, Hornets owner Michael Jordan decided to speak out as well, saying in a statement:

Over the past three decades I have seen up close the dedication of the law enforcement officers who protect me and my family. I have the greatest respect for their sacrifice and service. I also recognize that for many people of color their experiences with law enforcement have been different than mine. I have decided to speak out in the hope that we can come together as Americans, and through peaceful dialogue and education, achieve constructive change.

Jordan’s choice to speak out is surprising when you consider that he’s been publicly silent on political issues for much of his time in the spotlight. He has worked to support certain causes and has gone about hiring African Americans in executive positions behind the scenes, but has faced consistent criticism for not using his platform to discuss major issues. I tend to go back and forth on this. I think it’s fair to point out that Jordan should have done more publicly to address political issues and matters of race and racism. When you are one of the most recognizable athletes and entertainers in the world, you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on around you and it wouldn’t hurt to lend your input to the discussion. At the same time, Jordan isn’t obligated to say anything if he doesn’t want to. If a person feels that they can best enact change behind the scenes and through other means such as donations to organizations that do the work of creating a more fair and equal society, that should be respected. There are a variety of ways in which people can get involved, and you should look to find the method that is most comfortable for you. If you have the knowledge and want to discuss these issues in a public forum, that’s great. If you choose not to discuss them publicly, that’s OK as well.

It’s unlikely Jordan will continue to discuss matters like this publicly, but his statement has inspired Hornets guard Kemba Walker to speak up and use his platform to bring about social change.

In this moment, we can’t place the pressure of speaking up solely on Black athletes. Players like LeBron will be tasked with boycotting games in order to get some semblance of justice when the justice system fails, but that pressure isn’t applied to other superstar athletes like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or JJ Watt in the NFL. The task of ending racism is an arduous one, and it shouldn’t fall solely on Black people such as James and Jordan. White and other non Black athletes (and regular people as well) should feel the same sense of urgency to speak up and end police brutality, racism, etc as their Black peers. With that said, it was great to see non Black athletes such as Jeremy Lin and Sue Bird joining their peers and speaking out. The more people that speak out and work to end racism, the better.

Speaking up is one of the bravest things a person can do. They are letting us know where they stand and are willing to risk the consequences that come along with it. The players in the WNBA as well as their peers in the NBA have decided to step up and do what they can in order to improve interactions between police officers and the communities they are supposed to serve. They will be using their platforms to help bring about changes that will create a more equal and fair society. The issues they are addressing go beyond one political cycle, so we will have to keep a close eye on things and see how they address things. As we look to move to a more equitable society, having allies like these will help push us towards that goal.