The most recent wave of race-related shootings in the United States — chiefly the police killing of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, the police killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota, and the shooting deaths of five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas last week — have inspired several recent cases of increased political consciousness for black athletes. Members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx have made the most controversial statement so far in donning Black Lives Matter t-shirts that caused four off-duty police officers to walk off the job at Target Center during one of the team’s games, but many other athletes have at least weighed public statements on continued violence and the diminishment of black lives in American culture.
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New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony has been particularly vocal in recent days, posting to Instagram Friday with a call for athlete action and writing a Tuesday column for The Guardian that put forth many of the same ideas in a more formal and developed manner.
Melo’s column includes a consideration of making a statement at August’s Rio Olympics, but it turns out that he and several of the NBA’s most famous and accomplished figures were prepared to go public with their concerns much sooner. Superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade joined Anthony on stage to open the ESPY Awards with a call for athletes to not shy away from making bold political statements against violence and in support of black lives:
— Good Morning America (@GMA) July 14, 2016
The joint statement itself echoes much of what Melo expressed in his previous messages, but it’s safe to say that this video serves as a much powerful declaration of intent. Four of the most famous and prominent black men in America just asked their friends and peers to stand up for justice at an event that ostensibly exists for athletes to celebrate themselves. The message is clear — the climate in this country affects every black person, and the responsibility to do something to help is greater for those with the means to do it.
All four stars are good friends who often vacation together, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that they approached ESPN about opening the show with this statement:
Carmelo, LeBron, Dwyane Wade & Chris Paul asked to open the ESPYs w/this speech on race/the police. Wanted to call other athletes to action.
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 14, 2016
The ESPYs have been the sight of controversy before, most notably last July when Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award after coming out as a transgender woman. Critics claimed that ESPN had turned a celebration of sports into a divisive political affair, and similar responses are surely gestating now on social media and elsewhere in the wake of Wednesday’s opening.
As ever, the best answer to these claims is that sports have been and will continue to be political for some time. Any American sports league is bound to contain many of the issues and controversies that exist in the country’s culture as a whole. That’s especially true of the NBA, a league in which black men make up the vast majority of the public-facing work force and have their exploits and earnings broadcast more often and more widely than in any other industry.
Asking these athletes to stick to sports is asking them to reject their experience of the world. We have yet to see where Wednesday night’s opening statement will lead, but it’s a meaningful and necessary place to start.
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