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Athlete activists and a new year of protest fashion

Cataloging a number of powerful sources of civic engagement, activism, and resistance on the basketball court in 2014.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The year 2014 has finally cracked open the seemingly timeless insistence that sport is not political. Aside from a number of globally scaled scandals that have hewed the character of sport governance dealings around this past year’s World Cup and Olympic Games, here in the U.S., a look at just one sport, basketball, testifies to the ways sport is, in fact, political. Very political.

From the local level of girls and boys high school basketball in Mendocino, California, to the professional level of the NBA, basketball players are more passionately and powerfully declaring their rights as athlete activists.

Any efforts to claim sport as apolitical feel like rhetoric of a former time, not the substance of 2014.

This last year, the NBA further showed itself to be not only a mirror of social happenings, tensions and relations, but also an important institutional and cultural actor with the power to shape and reshape the dialogues about who should matter – about equality, respect, and basic freedoms.

The NBA this past year has shown itself a sport with its finger on the pulse of American society. The stature of the athlete activist offers hope that the rules might be rewritten.

Here, I want to catalogue a number of powerful sources of civic engagement, activism, and resistance that have crisscrossed the basketball court and our lives in 2014.

Ownership of a Team: Racism in the Franchise

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

As the ugliness of former Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments erupted on April 25th, it helped draw the public into a conversation about racism that the NBA and the country desperately needed to confront.

As NBA leaders worked to formulate a response to Sterling’s racist speech and seemingly long-tolerated actions, the Clippers’ players and team chose to wear their warm up jerseys turned inside-out in a key playoff game as a potent symbolic gesture of resistance.

In the period of time between the eruption of the Sterling scandal and Adam Silver’s response of a lifetime ban and a fine of $2.5 million, Clippers’ players were drawn up in a system of mixed interests. In addition to facing off against their favorite arch rivals, the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, for the Clippers, there was much more than a game at stake.

Powerful or powerless? This was one moment in which our enduring problems of race relations collided directly with the NBA, forcing players to come face to face with any make-believe that this was just basketball, not politics. Racism is not a relic of a former time.

This was not the game the Clippers thought they were playing.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

An important choice weighs upon many in our society when the game they are playing is not what they signed up for, when racism in their jobs colors their success, worth, and status. When differential status opens or constricts the opportunities and freedoms some enjoy on the streets, in their everyday live, a call and action to change the “order” of things is required of us all.

There was much applause and relief when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver showed his resolve, as he squared up in response to the Sterling affair. As a matter of the NBA’s reputational and financial integrity, Silver re-asserted the NBA’s capacity to draw in the posture of all league players to ensure basic standards of conduct and character. Athlete activism mattered.

In response to the Sterling affair, the Clippers’ protest fashion – the turning of pre-game warm up shirts inside out – was received with favor and a reply of immediate and serious response from the NBA. The arrival of a new owner, the ever-enthusiastic Steve Ballmer, which signaled the sale of the Clippers for $2 billion, further widened many smiles of satisfaction.

The problem is that however outrageous the “disgraced” Donald Sterling appeared earlier this year, the last months have shown that racism exists in the everyday crevices of our games and society.

Though the Clippers debuted in the new season with a rebranding mantra #BeRelentless, their quieted posture has not reflected the quite active and growing outcry rising across the NBA.

Prejudices, Racism and Police Brutality: Racism Off-Court

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

When Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls broke from NBA pre-game issued attire and wore a pre-game shirt with the simple yet powerful words “I Can’t Breathe,” the myth that compartmentalizes sport as not political further came undone. As more players and teams joined Rose, the power of protest fashion once again swelled.

Seeking to show solidarity with a protest movement, intent on assuring that our justice system, in fact, metes out justice, the NBA players’ protest fashion offered a way to reaffirm civic engagement and responsibility.

The symbolic statements (uniform politics) of these athlete activists may be at odds with NBA uniform rules, but so far, these rules have been suspended. Though no players have been fined, it is also interesting to note that no official NBA or outside sponsors have opted to add their name, brand, or logo to make these statements ‘official’.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The players’ resistance has shown to have a powerful mimetic effect. NBA stars stand even taller, with broader reach, when responding to the injustices we have tolerated in our society and its governing rules, processes, and enforcement representatives.

At the end of December, the Mendocino, California girls and boys high school basketball teams were threated with disqualification from an upcoming holiday tournament when their plan to wear “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts was revealed to coaches and other authorities.

Local police were offended by the disrespect of this speech, which they cited as a potential security threat. But there is a critical balance between security and liberty. For the students, this was a matter of liberty and basic public freedoms. As the student athletes argued in a press release,

We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public.

Under pressure, the boys’ team acquiesced to demands from tournament and team authorities. The girls’ team refused to budge and were subsequently banned.

In the end, the girls’ team’s threatened legal action forced an about-face decision from the school department that feared its crackdown might have been a violation of free speech protected in the 1st Amendment. The lifting of the ban was too late for the girls’ team to gain play, but these determined student athletes appeared in the bleachers with their shirts and posters, cheering on the boys’ team – whose members eventually were able to don their protest fashion due to the girls persistence of civic action.

It is true, declaring “I Can’t Breathe” threatens the rules of play.

We have found ourselves a part of something, a game, a society, not of our choosing. It is time for these rules of play to change.

The NBA is the crossroads: basketball in this era and at this level matters well beyond the arena. The basketball court is a critical runway for protest fashion. Let these ballers change the tune of freedoms and rights we can all demand to enjoy.

Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter: @cabinet48

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