The Los Angeles Lakers have joined the growing number of athletes protesting the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of law enforcement. According to the Associated Press, all players on the team except center Robert Sacre (an American citizen raised in Canada) wore black shirts with the phrase "I Can't Breathe" during warmups prior to Tuesday night's home game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. The Lakers followed Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and members of the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers, including LeBron James, in wearing the shirts before NBA games.
You can watch video of Kobe Bryant and other Lakers in the shirts here:
"I Can't Breathe" has become a rallying cry following a New York grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July 17 death of black Staten Island resident Eric Garner. Pantaleo placed Garner, who suffered from asthma, in a chokehold while placing him under arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. Video shows Garner saying "I can't breathe" during the encounter that led to his death.
Media members saw the shirts at players' lockers before the beginning of warmups. Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times posted this video from the locker room to Instagram:
The Lakers are certainly not the first athletes to support the fight against police brutality against black Americans, but their sartorial protest. On a very basic level, having all but one player wear the shirt represents the most complete protest by any one team. But it's also the first time that a player who was not black has worn one of the shirts. Point guard Jeremy Lin, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, joined his teammates:
While Rose and James explained their own "I Can't Breathe" shirts as related to family and the experience of growing up around violence, the phrase has an inescapably racial meaning. Garner's death was only the latest in a string of high-profile deaths of black men by police officers and has touched on longstanding questions regarding improper treatment of the black community. When black athletes wear shirts with the first-person slogan, they are aligning themselves with the cause. Like all black Americans, they have encountered some form of racism, however small or ingrained in society, at some point in their lives.
Lin complicates that relationship significantly. Lin has experienced his own forms of racism, most notably via the belief that athletes of Asian heritage can't compete at the highest levels of American sport. Yet that experience is far different from the issues that have compelled the "I Can't Breathe" outcry. Effectively, Lin has worn the short in support of the movement as a broader human issue, or at least to support his teammates as they make a statement about race relations.
This is important because the NBA as an organization has shown little interest in wading into the substance of these protests. As reported by Yahoo's own Adrian Wojnarowski on Monday, commissioner Adam Silver supports players' rights to voice their beliefs but would prefer that they not make changes to their uniforms to do so — in other words, he avoided taking a stand on the issue. One event does not make a trend, but Lin's move at least presents the possibility of people in the NBA crossing racial lines to voice their opinions. If other players follow suit, then it could put pressure on the NBA to look at the Garner protests as a mainstream issue that doesn't have to be defined by the desire not to offend certain demographics.
It is sad that the cause of equal treatment under the law would not be enough to get the league to comment, but such is the state of big-time professional sports. As Jacob Greenberg writes in an excellent piece for The Diss, the NBA and the people who cover it are curiously reluctant to weigh in on issues affecting black Americans given the makeup of the on-court workforce. Players' decision to wear these shirts constitutes some form of progress, but that doesn't mean we can't wonder why that process isn't moving any faster.
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