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Derrick Rose and the New Dawn of Athlete Activism

A rising tide of public activism has put to rest the notion that modern athletes can't, or won't, make their voices heard on social issues.
Photo by Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports

It's beyond trite to pretend to have hard answers or make sense of our current moment in time in America through sports; foolish, in fact, to look upon the sports world and overemphasize or over-publicize our athletic heroes in their quest to send a message and have their voices heard.

That said, perhaps no industry better reflects the complex and disjointed nature of American race relations than the business of sports, and the subsequent intersection of race, power, employment, and workplace displays of resistance. As such, what has transpired in recent weeks may well be elevated, and with good reason.


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When Derrick Rose turned last Saturday night's shoot around into a one-man silent protest, that meant something. So too when the Rams Five stood in unison and raised their 10 hands aloft in dissent two weeks ago. And when members of the Washington NFL team did the same in the preseason, as well.

Ditto Magic Johnson's call to arms. Ben Watson's delicately crafted Facebook soliloquy. Kenny Smith's open letter loudly opposing Charles Barkley. Maryland receiver Deon Long's cardboard sign reminder that #blacklivesmatter. And a litany of others not named here.

No, the sports activist is not dead, as was once prophesied with the creation of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as agnostic and apolitical machines of victory and business. And though the tide of sports' dissent is trending upward, it merely suggests an opening or beginning, following in the footsteps of sports advocates and retirees of decades past, who spoke (and speak) with vigor and candor, offering searing images of their own, and deeper debate.

That conversation starts and ends with Muhammad Ali: famously dropping his "slave name," speaking to no end of the sordid history on which our country was forged, electing prison in lieu of military enlistment, a most everlasting action.

"I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin' hell, but as long as they ain't free, I ain't free," he told Playboy in 1975. Bill Russell called Boston at the time he played a "flea market of racism." Tommie Smith and John Carlos turned the victory podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics into a stage for the loudest silent protest we have in recent memory. Imagine the outcry if, when taking gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, KD, LeBron, and Anthony Davis were to stand before the world with heads down and send the same message?


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar offered his own nuanced perspective on the sordid saga of Donald Sterling, where ultimately the just result may have been produced, but perhaps the means to the end was not. Consider the notion that Sterling operated as a bigot with social impunity (despite people like ESPN writer Bomani Jones screaming "This should be news" for years and decades). Only when TMZ decided to release Sterling's ghastly words could his fate be decided, with the masses of media and social media digesting it and taking action belatedly, swiftly, and rashly. A telling example of the nebulous nature of acknowledging (and taking proactive steps) against racism before digital indignation demands it.

Or the story of former Bulls sharpshooter Craig Hodges' unemployment, who sued the NBA in 1996, claiming to have been blackballed from a job for showing up to the White House in 1992 wearing a traditional dashiki and handing George H.W. Bush a letter to do more to end injustice against African-Americans.

Said Buck Williams, former Knicks forward and then-head of the player's union, to the New York Times about the case: ''I don't know if Hodges lost his job because of it, but it is a burden when you carry the militant label he has.''

That it is. And today, it's that same potential "militant" label—one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist—that American athletes risk receiving with their every choice, raised fist, T-shirt, and verbal statement; every missive of personal truth navigating a minefield and the potential consequences of dropped sponsors, conservative outrage, and perhaps even their careers. A thin line between love and hate, truth and militance, knowledge and outward expression of said knowledge.


So, then, what else do we know?

Well, for starters, we live in a country where being black means a life in perpetual peril from police. The lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Amadou Diallo remind us that each was 21 more times more likely to be killed by armed forces than a white counterpart. Meanwhile, the thought of more cameras on more police vests is thought to be a feasible solution. For what, to document the atrocities yet to be? The next 12-year-old boy's death broadcasted so as to trump the outrage of watching a grown man's suffocated, horrifying final words? Is this worth (maybe) drawing compassion from the (hopefully) dwindling few yet to realize something is awry here?

And we know too, that as with the cases of Sterling and Ray Rice and Bruce Levenson, from Ebola to Occupy, our news media at large is beholden to its 24-hour news cycle. It is ever hungry for the next villain or movement or crisis or sound bite to cover; looking as quickly to read from the same script, and turn the page as quickly as possible. Real and lasting change be damned.

Even still, there remains a simple, tragic absurdity behind it all, as Chris Rock put eloquently: "White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before." The same absurdity serves as an opening as to where said crazy people can start to move the needle themselves.

In the end, though, in the search for righteous cultural expression, we can always remember the most basic of truths, for athletes and fans alike: Actions speak louder than words. But for now, anyways, nothing rings out more solemnly than the words Derrick Rose and so many others have taken as a call to action.