Throughout history, Americans have participated in demonstrations to fight against oppression. One of the most iconic acts of protest was performed by two African American sprinters during the 1968 Olympic Games. Tommy Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium with their heads bowed and their fists raised. They were highly criticized and received a ton of backlash from the American people, but Smith and Carlos were protesting the harsh injustices that African Americans were facing during that time. Today, professional athletes are taking a more visible role in voicing their opinions on social issues by participating in acts of protest. The struggle for justice materializes in the form of police brutality after the recent deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, two unarmed African Americans from Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, respectively. Their lives were taken by white police officers.
LeBron James, arguably the greatest basketball player to grace the hardwood since Michael Jordan, is one of the most vocal professional athletes when it comes to voicing his opinion on social issues. On March 23, 2012, James tweeted a photo of himself and his then-Miami Heat teammates. They were wearing hooded sweatshirts with their heads bowed down in support of Trayvon Martin, the black teen killed by neighborhood watch patrolman George Zimmerman. In the post, James also included hashtags “#WeAreTrayvonMartin”, “#Hoodies”, “#Stereotyped”, and “#WeWantJustice”. More recently, James joined the discussion when the St. Louis grand jury decided not to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown. James posted an artistic drawing of Martin and Brown walking hand in hand on his Instagram account with the caption, “As a society how do we do better and stop things like this happening time after time!! I’m so sorry to these families. Violence is not the answer people. Retaliation isn’t the solution as well. #PrayersUpToTheFamilies #WeHaveToDoBetter.”
The power of James’ voice was evident when he took the floor with British royalty sitting courtside. On December 8, 2014, the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center in front of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt to pay respect to New York native Eric Garner. Garner died after a New York Police Officer applied an illegal chokehold around his neck. Garner’s final words were, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Grand juries again decided not to indict the white officer.
What does wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt represent? Not only does it pay tribute to Eric Garner’s life, which was drained away as he cried “I can’t breathe”, but it represents the oppressed, sends a message to our justice system, and makes a statement about a huge flaw in American society. African Americans are being killed and the justice system is brushing the lives of these individuals off as if they do not matter. Police officers are literally getting away with murder. The murder, the killing, the death of Eric Garner was caught on camera and the officer was not indicted. This is the message LeBron James wanted to get across. He wanted to let society know that we need to do better and change.
It is important for athletes to voice their opinions on social issues and injustices because it sparks conversation. With social media, athletes can have a direct connection to their fans and let their voices be heard about these issues. Whether it inspires followers or not, it is important that public figures, with the power of their voices, speak and be heard. They should not worry about the backlash from sponsors, the league, or the media, but should feel honored to be a voice in society. As said by Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey, “Most social media users would rather be followers than to express their views. Leadership brings scrutiny – thus social media opens ways to new leadership”. So I’m calling on all athletes to be that leader, inspire followers to express their views, and build social leaders for the future.