Athletes with a Conscience – The Return of the Good Ol’ Days

wnbaBelieve it or not, I really do hate telling ‘back when I was young stories’. That’s because, I don’t like dating myself. I feel as if I’m telling stories that are 100 years old when they are actually from my youth – which was only about half-a-hundred years ago!

But, having said all of that,  I find it interesting – and heartening – that our young, professional athletes are developing and exercising their social conscience. In some cases, these are established athletes who in many cases are risking endorsements, and opportunities expand their  personal fame and in a few cases putting their careers in jeopardy.

Take for example WNBA players. On July 9,  Minnesota Lynx players wore warm-up shirts printed with “Black Lives Matter”,  and the phrases “Change Starts With Us” and “Justice and Accountability”, with the image of the Dallas police shield, and the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, black men killed by police officers that week. (Castile lived, worked, went to college, and died in Minnesota.).That was a bold move.

The next day, the New York Liberty wore warm up shirts that had #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5, in honor of the five police killed by a sniper after a demonstration by protesters. Shortly after that, a number of other teams wore plain black warm up tops as a political statement. The WNBA front office fined the teams that wore those black warm up tops, $5000. The players were fined $500 each.The Lynx, who didn’t wear their warm ups after July 9, were spared, but warned of an impending fine.

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Tina Charles

Here’s the amazing thing: the Lynx players reaction to the fines imposed on their league teammates, was the imposition of their own ‘media blackout’ refusing to talk to sports reporters after their game. They said the blackout would continue until they got league support for their protest. The players also received overwhelming public support. So much so, the league office rescinded the fines saying, “Appreciate our players expressing themselves on matters important to them. Rescinding imposed fines to show them even more support.” Bravo, to these young women, who stood together across racial lines to make a statement about an issue important to them! As Liberty guard Tanisha Wright said, “We want to be able to use our platforms; we want to be able to use our voices,” said Liberty guard Tanisha Wright to reporters after Thursday’s game. “We don’t want to let anybody silence us.”

Natasha Cloud with the Linx said, “We definitely wanted to show our support for those teams that did get fined for wearing just plain black Adidas shirts. We’re allowed to wear whatever we want to the games, to and from the games, so if they’re going to take away our right and our voice to advocate for something so important to 70 percent of the league which is African American, we’ll find other ways to do it and other ways to do it.”

This isn’t an isolated incident. In the NBA, several players, along with the entire Los Angeles Lakers team, wore shirts bearing the phrase, ‘I Can’t Breathe’, in support of protests of Eric Garners killing. Recently, at ESPN’s Espy Awards, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James spoke out. It was a coming together of sports luminaries voicing their concern over a societal issue, not seen since Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Bill Russell and others, came together in support of Muhammad Ali.

jim brown

Even more recently, Michael Jordan, arguably (or inarguably) the greatest basketball player of all time and now Charlotte Hornets team owner, expressed his concern over police killings of African-Americans and the assassinations of police officers – as well as the tensions between minority communities and law enforcement. He released this statement,

“I was raised by parents who taught me to love and respect people regardless of their race or background, so I am saddened and frustrated by the divisive rhetoric and racial tensions that seem to be getting worse as of late. I know this country is better than that, and I can no longer stay silent. We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported…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…”

But Jordan, not only released a powerful statement but put his money where his mouth (and heart) was: $1 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and $1 million for the newly established Institute for Community and Police Relations, whose focus is on supporting best practices in community policing.  Jordan went on say, “We are privileged to live in the world’s greatest country – a country that has provided my family and me the greatest of opportunities. The problems we face didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved tomorrow, but if we all work together, we can foster greater understanding, positive change and create a more peaceful world for ourselves, our children, our families and our communities.”

I grew up in the age of Jim Brown, Mohammad Ali, Duane Thomas, Curt Flood, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, even Bill Walton, athletes who had a social conscience, willing to take stands and make sacrifices. They were stellar athletes, willing to be misunderstood to take stands which were sometimes unpopular, but who made an actual difference. It looks like that’s back in vogue.

Glad to see them make a return…

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