“Everybody knows me. I’m the big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s All-American,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (at the time, known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor) said at a founding meeting of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967. “Well, last summer I was almost killed by a racist cop shooting at a black [man] in Harlem. He was shooting on the street — where masses of people were standing around or just taking a walk. But he didn’t care. After all we were just [Blacks].”
Abdul-Jabbar’s story underscores the complex existence of prominent Black athletes who have historically sought to reconcile their lionized status with the racial “othering” that plagues their existence. The following year, the Olympic Project for Human Rights would gain international recognition after members Tommy Smith and John Carlos proudly launched their gloved fists into the air while perched atop an Olympic podium in Mexico City, Mexico. Smith and Carlos, both Black athletes, were protesting the racial injustice and systemic racism that defined the U.S. at the time.
More than four decades later, the historic strike by the Milwaukee Bucks this August powerfully drew attention once again to the contemporary permutations of the same systems of racism that Smith and Carlos were protesting. “The past four months have shed a light on the ongoing racial injustices facing our African American communities,” reads the statement issued by Bucks players on August 26. “Citizens around the country have used their voices and platforms to speak out against these wrongdoings.”
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Donning t-shirts that featured “Black Lives Matter,” “Black Excellence” or quotes from former President Barack Obama scrolled across the front, their attire — together with their collective refusal to play in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoffs series against the Orlando Magic — bespoke a unity among teammates that transcended racial boundaries.
Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, three days before the Bucks issued their statement. The incident, caught on camera, has sparked outrage and protests across the nation. Athletes from various leagues have determined they cannot ignore the many racial injustices captured on film, revealed with both aural and visual certitude, that continue to place in sharp relief the devalued nature of Black lives in the U.S.
“Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin,” the Bucks’ statement continued, “we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball.” The team’s collective dictate posed a fundamental challenge to all of the country: Entertainment be damned. Black lives are at stake right now.
Many have witnessed the events of the past several months — from the killing of Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood, to the patrolling of racial boundaries by those who call law enforcement on African Americans for doing everyday things such as bird watching or picking up trash — with disbelief and fury.
In the last several months, we have also been bearing witness to how systemic racism has led to a disproportionate number of Black people dying from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the anger that has led to countless and sustained protests is a response not simply to a singular act of racism or racial terror, but to the structural inequality that has created seemingly insurmountable barriers to progress.
It is within the confines of these truths that the Bucks have exercised their fundamental and inalienable right to protest. They do not stand alone, however.
Professional athletes from various leagues have responded to this historical moment in a multitude of ways. Players in the National Football League (NFL) have for several years called attention to racial injustice through varied forms of protest, such as kneeling during the national anthem, setting an example for others.
During this season’s opener of Major League Baseball (MLB) in July, players and coaches from the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees kneeled before the playing of the national anthem. Shortly thereafter, a video featuring several well-known Black baseball players discussing the death of George Floyd and the need for change was shown on a stadium screen.
When the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) resumed play on June 28 after the pandemic halted professional sporting events, starters for the Portland Thorns and Carolina Courage kneeled during the national anthem as a show of communion with the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, in response to the shooting of Blake, players from the NBA, MLB, MLS and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) have all refused to play in scheduled games.
Players in the WNBA have taken sustained action in response to racism for months by, among other things, conducting media blackouts, leaving the court during the national anthem, speaking out publicly in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and wearing t-shirts with seven dots on the back representing the seven bullets fired into Blake. In January, Minnesota Lynx star Maya Moore announced that she would sit out the season to help overturn the conviction of Johnathon Irons who wrongfully was serving a 50-year sentence for burglary. Irons was freed from a Missouri penitentiary on July 1.
Beginning in June, WNBA players started calling for the arrest of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. On August 27, WNBA players’ union president, Nneka Ogwumike, issued a statement in response to the Blake shooting and to the killing of Black women at the hands of law enforcement.
“We are doubling down on our previous calls to action,” Ogwumike insisted. “Let us not let up seeking justice for Sandra Bland, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Korryn Gaines, India Kager, Kayla Moore, Layleen Polanco, Michelle Shirley and other Black and Brown women who are victims of police violence.”
There is not a homogenous expression of discontent or activism among professional athletes, as evidenced by the diversity of responses they have undertaken just in recent months. And while athletes regardless of race have engaged in a range of actions to protest racism, Black athletes have occupied a particularly visible space in the struggle for equality. Historically, Blackness has functioned as a complex determinant of racial interaction, domination and racial disparities in the interpretation of crime and the application of “justice.” Certain phenomena and historical processes (from minstrelsy to convict leasing to Jim Crow) have often defined African Americans as objects for both persecution and entertainment and have placed an alternate value on their lives. Black athletes are not exempt from such realities.
This moment in our history has become one that has allowed Black professional athletes to reconcile the complexity of identities that have rendered them both the receivers of racism and lauded public figures. They are burdened, or perhaps driven, by what I refer to as a triple-consciousness, a concept of multiple identities used here to nuance Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois’s brilliant theory of double consciousness.
The famed intellectual, writer and activist first became aware of his perceived status as a racialized other through the taunting and disparaging actions of his white classmate in a Massachusetts schoolyard. DuBois, the only Black child among them, was refused a playing card by a white classmate due to the color of his skin. This, his moment of racial awareness, became the topic first of an 1897 article in The Atlantic and then his 1903 essay, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.”
The moment resulted, DuBois suggested, in two paths that presented themselves to him. He knew that he could either relax into a nihilistic existence in which a debased racialized status was internalized, only to become sullen and unproductive — a stereotype of sorts pandering to racist notions of Blackness. Or, he could emerge as a victor in all things. He chose the latter. But this required the reconciling of two identities, a “double consciousness,” being at once American and Black.
As an American, he should be allotted all of the protections and respect inherent in being a citizen of a democratic country. Yet, as a Black person, he was continuously subject to racial discrimination and terror. DuBois, much like the Black professional athletes protesting racial injustice today, would thereby engage in the work of attempting to lift his Blackness beyond the reach of oppressive systems while ensuring that he was afforded all of the liberties inherent in American citizenship.
A third consciousness both complicates and enhances the identity of Black professional athletes. Highly visible athletic success typically affords one a certain notoriety, a lionized existence that often allows the sports star to be treated as a celebrity. Nevertheless, the social mores of a particular historical moment are often reflected in the interplay between race and daily life. Therefore, even celebrity status has historically not been strong enough to buffer these athletes from the perils of racism and allow them to overcome the debased status of Blackness.
Many critics have admonished Black players for speaking out against racial injustice, citing their elevated economic status as reason for them to remain silent and grateful. Joe Walsh, a former Republican Congressman from Illinois, blamed the NFL protests on “ungrateful millionaire athletes” who “said America is racist.” “They are wrong,” he charged. He later called singer Stevie Wonder, who took a knee during the national anthem, “another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.” Successful Black athletes have been told repeatedly that they remain shielded from racism due to their accomplishments. In truth, race in the U.S. has historically been the ultimate determinant of status as evidenced, for instance, by the rash of bombings that welcomed upwardly mobile African Americans who moved into white neighborhoods across the country throughout much of the 20th century, or recent studies that demonstrate hiring bias among employers who viewed the resumes of those with traditionally white-sounding names more favorably. The treatment of successful Black athletes has been no exception.
When NFL player Matthias Askew got into his vehicle in a Cincinnati, Ohio, parking lot, a police officer informed him that he was parked illegally. The 2006 incident ended with several officers using a stun gun four times on Askew before arresting him. A judge cleared Askew of any wrongdoing and discredited officers’ account of the incident. Ken Lawson, Askew’s former attorney, insisted, “They tased him simply because he was a big black man, not because he did anything to make them fear for their safety.”
Just last week, sports commentator and former Los Angeles Laker Robert Horry’s tearful on-air admission garnered sympathy across the country. Horry, who was speaking publicly about the shooting of Blake, confessed that he fears for the lives of his Black sons when they leave his home. Horry’s candor reveals the depth of dread and agony harbored by countless Black people in this country: “It’s hard to tell your 14-year-old son that I worry about him when he walks out that door. I have a 21-year-old son, I worry about him. ‘Cause Black men are endangered species,” Horry desolately asserted.
Similarly, Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers’s lamentation during a recent interview regarding the playoff boycotts discloses much about the emotional toll racial injustice has taken on African Americans: “We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.” But countless Black professional athletes are finding their way in reconciling their warring identities, in using their triple-consciousness effectively. While their exalted standing as public figures might not buffer them from experiencing racism, it has certainly provided them with a unique platform that allows for their celebrity to serve as a catalyst for social change.
“Shut up and dribble,” Laura Ingraham famously bellowed on her Fox News television show in response to NBA star LeBron James’s viral rebuke of President Donald Trump, who had disinvited Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors to the White House following Curry’s hesitation to accept the invitation. James — whose gate to his Los Angeles home was vandalized when a person spray-painted a racial slur on it — reappropriated Ingraham’s shameless obstinance by producing a three-part documentary series, entitled “Shut Up and Dribble,” that chronicles how various NBA players have used their celebrity to effect change. Simply brilliant.
In 2017, the NFL created Inspire Change, an initiative “to support programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity.” Created by the Players Association and team owners, the initiative focuses primarily on “education and economic advancement, police and community relations,” and “criminal justice reform.”
Most recently, in response to the NBA players’ boycott, franchise officials and players orchestrated an agreement that will allow members of the local community to vote at NBA arenas during the upcoming election. “In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property,” the statement issued by the NBA Players Association reads, “team governors will continue to work with local elections officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID.”
This reconciling of a triple-consciousness among Black athletes in an effort to transform racism into social change is not a new phenomenon. From heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson’s constant rejection, through his everyday actions, of a racial hierarchy that sought to keep him firmly in his place; to track and field legend Wilma Rudolph’s insistence on an integrated parade in Clarksville, Tennessee, in honor of her Olympic achievements; or Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame player and coach Lenny Wilkens’s refusal to play in a St. Louis Hawks NBA game in Kentucky after a local restaurant would not allow Black players to sit down and eat, Black athletes have historically been among those at the forefront of protesting racial injustice. So when then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee in protest of racialized police brutality, his courageous action placed him squarely on a historical continuum of those who have endeavored to dismantle racism as they worked to allow their triple-consciousness to exist as the driving force for change.
Unsurprisingly, the recent protests of athletes have sparked both delightful admiration and dogged condemnation from people across the country. For many, these athletes are expected to compartmentalize their existence, to firmly distinguish between the body meant for entertainment and the authentic self. In 2018, responding to the NFL football players’ protests during the national anthem, Trump urged team owners to, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” His declaration bore all of the hallmarks of objectifying the Black body by reducing it to a singular purpose — in this case, entertainment — that have existed for decades.
Despite the ongoing devaluation of Black lives in this country, the actions of these athletes — in conjunction with the rise of Black youth-led movements around the country — remind us that change is possible. History tells us that change has occurred through the persistence of those who work for racial justice. Those athletes who have chosen to use their platforms and stand together with so many others in the long movement for social change — who risked much for the cause of liberty, of justice, to force a nation to confront its wicked reality and to make the words written in the founding documents apply to all — demonstrate that nothing is impossible. Such a phrase will carry us to the creation of a world of parity, a world where we honor difference and reject injustice, a world of possibility.