In my series of posts about Howard Bryant’s book The Heritage, I discussed the book’s thesis of how the responsibility of successful black athletes to speak out on issues of injustice that was started by Paul Robeson, and carried on by Jackie Robinson, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Muhammad Ali, went into decline with the arrival of extremely successful athletes like OJ Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods who wanted to do nothing that would endanger their lucrative corporate endorsements.
That fallen baton has now been picked up by Colin Kaepernick and some athletes are now rallying around, though nowhere near the numbers necessary to have a serious impact. In this mix we have Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Abdul Jabbar has always been political. In fact, he was a supporter of the move for black athletes worldwide to boycott the 1968 Olympics to protest racial injustice. That fizzled out but he himself did not go. Bryant says that that experience of being left isolated may have soured him and he lay low for a while. But recently, he has emerged again as one of the most thoughtful analysts of politics and popular culture and I have linked to his pieces on occasion.
In an open letter to NFL owners, he has now voiced criticism for the way they have responded to voices of dissent and treated Kaepernick. He is especially angered by the agreement among nearly all owners to punish players who kneel during the national anthem.
In May, you implemented a childish policy about how grown men must respond to the national anthem: a player can stay in the locker room during the anthem, but if he takes the field and then protests, the team and the player can be fined.
Now, following the Miami Dolphins channeling of the abusive students in Stanford Prison Experiment by over-punishing protesting players, the May agreement is frozen and new negotiations have begun, this time including the NFL Players Association.
It’s been two years since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest systemic racial injustice, especially police brutality, against people of color. The worst thing about that isn’t that two years later we’re still debating whether players have the right to protest, it’s that not much has changed regarding what Kaepernick was protesting.
Denying your players their freedom to express their concerns sends a clear message that you don’t value your black players’ values. You’re telling them that they must abide by your white perception of social justice even though you have no experience with the kind of institutional injustice that robs their community of lives, hope and a future. You are owners in that you own the franchise, but you don’t own the players or their hearts and minds.
Now even LeBron James is making statements about the political situation and calling out Donald Trump for being divisive, though he has not fully used the greater freedom that NBA players have compared to football players.
There will be no meaningful repercussions for LeBron speaking out against the president. For one, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has encouraged players to use social media to be involved in causes, he will back LeBron. Jeanie Buss will not say anything as the Lakers’ owner (and unlike the NFL, elite NBA players have the power in that relationship). Most importantly, the NBA and NFL have very different fan bases, and the younger, more urban, more diverse NBA will mostly just nod in agreement with him.
LeBron is going to keep speaking his mind, and Los Angeles he could have even a larger megaphone.
Let’s hope he uses that megaphone to rally more players to speak out so that Kaepernick is not so isolated. What Robeson started must not be allowed to fade away.