Greg Cote

Greg Cote: T-shirt protest messages by athletes are breath of fresh air

Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James warms up before a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Athletes have worn “I Can’t Breathe” messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man.
Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James warms up before a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014, in New York. Athletes have worn “I Can’t Breathe” messages in protest of a grand jury ruling not to indict an officer in the death of a New York man. AP

Some fans still want to see sports as insulated and separate from society – games as escapism and players as one-dimensional entertainers helping us forget real life for a while. Those same folks undoubtedly prefer that their athletes (and newspaper columnists) “stick to sports” and not meander outside the chalked lines of a stadium or painted borders of a hardwood court.

Sorry. It isn’t possible.

It never was realistic. Not in the 1960s, when Cassius Clay was becoming Muhammad Ali and when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were raising black-gloved fists on an Olympic medal stand. And less so now.

Yes, there will always be athletes who keep secret any social conscience or off-field opinions they may have. I’m thinking of Tiger Woods. I’m thinking of Michael Jordan, asked once why he wouldn’t endorse a political candidate, referencing his Nike brand in saying, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”

But the wall between sports and real life breaks down a little more every time an athlete makes headlines for spousal abuse, or a DUI arrest, or performance-enhancing drugs.

Likewise the idea our athletes are programmed robots whose only thought is the next game – that wall crumbles a little more every time somebody reveals a social conscience and speaks up about things bigger and more important than sports.

We are seeing that now, and it is a wonderful thing.

Athletes as human beings: What a concept! Our sports stars are black and white and straight and gay and apolitical and outraged, and there is room for everybody.

With due respect, the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton speaking into an amplified bullhorn do not reach the audience or have the impact LeBron James does in wearing a black “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during pregame warmups.

Honesty is always good, and that includes athletes occasionally revealing the man inside the uniform. Revealing hearts and minds. Showing us, by word and deed, that it isn’t always about money, or winning.

TWO CONTROVERSIAL INCIDENTS

The recent deaths of two unarmed black men – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City – have sparked nationwide protests after grand juries in each case declined to indict the white police officers involved in the deaths.

I don’t see the protests as anti-police. I see them as pro-justice.

But even those who disagree on that should be able to do so civilly and appreciate that protest is a fundamental exercise of freedom. I don’t mean violent protest that includes burning cars and looting such as we have seen in Ferguson, actions that led Charles Barkley to refer to those looters as “scumbags.” That form of protest isn’t a right, it’s a crime.

No, I mean the exercise of freedom to wear a T-shirt bearing the last words of Garner, who died after being put in a police choke-hold after he had been stopped for the misdemeanor of selling individual cigarettes.

In the past week we have seen St. Louis Rams and Washington Redskins players use a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in solidarity with those protesting the killing of Brown. The Lions’ Reggie Bush supported Garner and the protest over his killing by handwriting “I Can’t Breathe” on the shirt he wore before a game. NBA stars including Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant and others in addition to LeBron have worn the same slogan on shirts.

All but one Laker wore the shirt before Tuesday night’s game. Backup center Robert Sacre chose not to. He shouldn’t be criticized for his choice, either.

“It’s important that we stand up for what we believe in,” Bryant said. “We all don’t have to agree with it and it’s completely fine. That’s what makes this a beautiful country.”

Beautiful, but not perfect.

“Obviously we know our society needs to get better,” James said in explaining why he wore the statement.

James and then-Heat teammates similarly had protested the 2012 killing of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Shooter George Zimmerman was acquitted in a trial.

THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS

There may be instances when teams and leagues step in to curtail athletes’ personal expressions in the context of games. It would grow tiresome fast, for example, if teammates began to wear shirts for competing political candidates, or if one player’s “pro-life” shirt begat a teammate’s “pro-choice” declaration. I don’t think we need a T-shirt war between Player A, an avid hunter, and Player B, who donates to PETA.

Freedom of expression is beholden to reasonable limits when an athlete is on “company time,” in a stadium, ballpark or arena.

I think it is reasonable, though, that athletes should be allowed their full voice in what they see as a matter of civil rights and justice. A matter of consequence and conscience.

Expressing themselves openly doesn’t make athletes right or wrong.

First and mostly, it just makes them citizens in a country that is imperfect, but free.

It just means they care.

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