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Monday Musings: The Burden of Activism in Sports

When public issues and sports collide, we require our athletes to take on the responsibility of civil rights activism

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Sports are one of the few unifying bonds that exist in our society, as they serve as regional rallying tribes for people to follow with agreed upon rules and regulations. The complexities, nuances, and struggles of the world are ideally thought to be beyond the purview of the known battlegrounds of our sports teams. However, this utopian sports world does not exist, nor will it.

While sports celebrities are often simply thought as role models for our youth, they can become much more during trying times or celebration. They are frankly allowed to have a more personal impact or connection than our more normative types of celebrities such as politicians or movie stars. Sports athletes seem to define regional makeups, or rather we project our idealized identities upon them. They can tap into the mainstream through success and live forever as icons for cities, states, or even countries. They become heroes, in all senses of the word.

However, regardless of how much we lavish grandiose praise upon them, these heroes are but people too, existing in the same time, place, and cultural moment as the rest of us. They often face the same discrimination, albeit in more coded forms, that the general population faces. Therefore it is all the more impressive when they are able to shoulder that burden and rise to the occasion in response to the madness swirling around us. As is unfortunately the case, the struggles that we require our sports celebrities to vie against are often those of prejudice and injustice, simply due to the high proportion of black sports players living in a white-dominated world. Racial issues and sports are not allowed to exist in a vacuum, as they serve to inform and influence one another.

Each sport has its own relationship to these historical problems and it does not take too much research to delve into the everyday difficulties that the prior generations of NBA players faced from the advent of the sport to today. A recent, and explicit, example was the NBA' s crackdown on dress-codes where Allen Iverson often served as the poster child for the image, as well as the coded racism it brought, that the NBA was trying to differentiate itself from.

But each era has its own difficulties and our epoch's racial struggles have never been so apparent than the last few weeks. The issue of police violence and general policing in distressed black communities in America has severely escalated, which we have seen in our own home state of Minnesota. Tensions have likely never been higher between the black community and the general police force since the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties.

The respite that sports normally provide from the crises of the world is not to be found, especially for NBA fans as the actual players are so demonstrably connected to the action. Even the NBA playoffs last year were directly affected by police violence against Thabo Sefolosha, who had his leg broken during his arrest and is currently suing the NYPD, the process of which was comically documented by the Daily Show.

As is befitting of the best player of our generation, LeBron James has stepped up to be a leader in regards to publicizing his views on these civil rights issues, which began with the Miami Heat donning hoodies following the death of Trayvon Martin. This picture placed the team in solidarity with the millions of other Americans outraged by the events that led to Trayvon's death, as well as the eventual acquittal of George Zimmerman. LeBron also was one of many NBA players that wore warm-up shirts reading "I Can't Breathe," as seen in the header picture, in response to the death of Eric Garner.

This is not to say that LeBron acted alone in these actions, or was even the lead advocate for NBA players to demonstrate the need for change, but LeBron is one of the few athletes that has served as the "face of the NBA" in the past decade. He is fully aware of the attention actions like these bring to him, as well as the level of  outreach that he can achieve through his message.

The Minnesota Lynx also made national headlines when several players on the team wore shirts that read "Change Starts With Us, Justice and Accountability" with the names of recent victims of police killings, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling on the back, which led to four off-duty cops working the July 9th game to walk out of the arena and an angry tirade, which is unworthy of being shared, from Lt. Bob Kroll, President of the Police Officer's Federation of Minneapolis . While this rift was recently publically repaired, the Minnesota Lynx players have become part of the larger conversation of how athletes can act as instigators for public discussion in our culture.

Most recently, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony took to the stage together at the ESPYs to speak on their feelings and response to the last few weeks of violence. They specifically referenced the forefathers of their message, from Muhammed Ali to Jackie Robinson, as well as the need for themselves, and athletes in general, to be cognizant of the power that they bear and the ability to impact their local communities which they have adopted or grown up in.

While obviously one speech from a few popular NBA players does not serve as the ultimate catalyst for change, it does show us that some of the most popular athletes in the world are taking up the burden of leadership that we require of them, whether this is through their public opinions or more tangible community building efforts with charities and foundations. This is not their duty alone, but rather it is placed upon all of us to follow the path that they are blazing through the public discussion of racial discrimination and violence, which we must then follow with nuance and passion. But this is what we require of our sports celebrities, to be better than us and to be unafraid of the repercussions that their actions will bring. That is when they truly become heroes among us.