Our Collective Breath

Three words on a t-shirt. Simple statement. I. Can’t. Breathe. Three words on a sign. Black. Lives. Matter.

Repeated how many times? How many times will we repeat these patterns? Eric Garner’s death and the Staten Island Grand Jury’s decision not to indict. At what point do athletes breach the modern wall between politics and sport that the business of professional athletics has built up? LeBron and the Heat were brave enough to stand together with hoodies raised in honor of Trayvon. The St. Louis Rams players with arms raised in honor of Michael Brown. Derrick Rose wears a t-shirt that tells you he’s human and he’s hurting just like so many of us. Rose grew up surrounded by the violence of Chicago’s streets, but insulated by a close-knit family that knew he was the way out.

Rose’s career is hanging in the balance this year, as he attempts to bring the Bulls back to the championship-contender status they held before the health of his legs (ankles, knees, hamstrings) became the ongoing story. Rose has been suffocated with questions about his desire since last Spring.

He opened up about wanting to be healthy for life after basketball recently. The quotes didn’t sit well with limping former athletes. Most athletes imagine themselves as invincible and if they get injured they imagine defeating a kind of monster in their rehab. The demon is really within themselves. To admit physical weakness would often mean the end of their careers and the life they have known for decades. The fear pushes them. What should people expect from their heroes? Complete sacrifice of the physical body? Seems insane, regardless of the past.

But what we had in the past was athletes as activists, in part because the society was changing and cultural movements were everywhere. In part because money had not taken over. In part because of the souls of those individuals who demanded equality. From Jesse Owens to Bill Russell. From Muhammad Ali to Curt Flood. Voices of change coming from the playing field. So many watch sports hoping to escape. Those are the fans that most need to see athletes unafraid to lose some endorsement dollars (from right wing sponsors) and sharing their pain with the culture at large. #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter are not going away. If you’re tired of hearing about them, maybe you should take a breath and collect yourself. Far too many of us can’t breathe. And athletes have stopped holding their breath. First Derrick Rose. Tonight, LeBron, Kyrie Irving and several member of the Brooklyn Nets. Jarrett Jack supplied his former teammates with the t-shirts.

Maybe Paul Pierce should lend D-Rose his nickname, because Rose is currently, "The Truth."

Maybe Paul Pierce should lend D-Rose his nickname, because Rose is currently, “The Truth.”

Dave Zirin, The Nation, “#BlackLivesMatter Takes the Field: A Weekend of Athletes Speaking Out,”

The marches in the streets are not done. The die-ins disrupting traffic are not done. Any kind of closure for the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley nd so many others is far from done. So why should anyone be surprised that the St. Louis Rams were not done? A week after five players raised their arms in the now iconic protest pose of “hands up, don’t shoot,” wide receiver Kenny Britt took the field with the names “Michael Brown” and “Trayvon Martin” written on his cleats. His teammate Jared Cook had the words “I can’t breathe,” the last gasp of Staten Island’s Eric Garner as a police officer cut off his oxygen with a chokehold, written on his wristband. Teammate Davin Joseph had the same phrase written on his cleats.

They were not alone. Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, who was attacked by Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League for comparing the late Michael Brown’s hometown of Ferguson to Gaza on Instagram, was not cowed into silence and wore a shirt that read “I can’t breathe” during warm-ups. He said, “Honestly, I’ve always been the quiet kid. I’ve always been the one who’s reserved, to kind of sit back and not really get into politics and things like that. But I don’t know why I just felt some kind of … I guess the situation just touched me.”

Bush’s mom has also been a police officer for twenty years, and yes, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at the Bush house this Christmas.

Browns cornerback Johnson Bademosi also wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt before game time, as did San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram. Then there was Brandian Ross of the Raiders, who came out during player introductions without a helmet and with his hands up high, and Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker, who raised his hands up after a sack. Although, in Baker’s case, the gesture of anti-racism while wearing a Redskins uniform probably won’t make it onto a protest poster anytime soon.

These actions by NFL players come the day after NBA star Derrick Rose wore an “I can’t breathe” shirt during warm-ups, which prompted the NBA’s number-one icon, LeBron James,to say, “I thought it was great. I’m looking for one.”

Then there is All-Star guard Damian Lillard who posted this gut-punch of a political cartoonby Rik Sansone to his Instagram account, causing the image to go viral among sports fans and protesters alike.

Two members of the Oregon Ducks basketball team also raised their hands up during the pledge of allegiance the week after Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith, playing near Ferguson in Claremont, Missouri, lay on the floor of the court and would not move for four and a half minutes, to represent the four and a half hours that Michael Brown was left in the street after dying at the hands of Darren Wilson.

Each of these actions has the effect of amplifying the impact of a new struggle for human dignity in the face of racism. It has has found expression in all fifty states and in solidarity actions in cities around the world all with the message that black lives matter. Seeing the movement impinge upon the highly sanitized, deeply authoritarian world of sports is not only a reflection of just how widespread the outpouring of anger has been. These athletic protests also shape the movement, giving more people the confidence to get in the streets and puncturing the self-imposed bubbles of those who want to pretend that all is well in the world. It is politicizing sports fans and educating those who think that sports in general—and athletes in particular—have nothing to offer the struggle for a better world.

Yes, it is also provoking a great deal of ugliness among a segment of fans on social media, not to mention snide smirks from some sports writers who once a year find time to praise people like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others tucked away in the past. They should listen to Lions coach Jim Caldwell, one of only four African-American head coaches in the NFL. When asked about his players getting political the normally taciturn Caldwell said:

I grew up in the 60s, where everybody was socially conscious. I believe in it. I’d be a hypocrite if I stood up here and told you any differently, because more than likely, some of those protests that Dr (Martin Luther) King and some of the others that took a part in non-violent protests, is the reason why I’m standing here in front of you today.

This is a similar moment. Except this movement is not only explicitly about the right to live a life with more opportunity, but the right to simply live. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” The train is leaving the station, even in the world of sports.

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