The ESPY Awards honor individual and team athletes in the U.S. and worldwide for outstanding achievements on a yearly basis. It is sponsored by ESPN, arguably the most well-known international sports network. Its Sports Center shows are extremely popular. ESPN, a partner of the ABC commercial network, has a reputation of mixing sports with social issues, including those dealing with racism, sexism and homophobia.
In light of the recent police murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., this year’s ESPY broadcast took the unusual step of opening with four prominent African-American National Basketball Association All-Stars — Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade and LeBron James — who presented moving and heartfelt soliloquies reflecting on the issue of race and police killings.
Paul specifically mentioned the names of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sterling and Castile, all murdered by racist state repression, and emphasized how Black and Brown people are disrespected. Wade made a call for racial profiling to stop, although he didn’t directly link profiling to police terror.
What these messages reflect is a recent trend among well-known and lesser-known athletes. Before the awards took place, members of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Minnesota Lynx and the New York Liberty wore warm up T-shirts with the names of Sterling and Castile. The Lynx are the current WNBA champions. Their T-shirts also included a small Dallas police emblem with the words “Black Lives Matter” above it.
Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve posted this powerful statement on her Twitter account: “To rebut BLM with ‘All Lives Matter’ implies that all lives are equally at risk, and they’re not. #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important if you aren’t Black — it means that Black lives, which are seen without value within white supremacy, are important.”
Off-duty police “walked off the job” during the Lynx game in protest and refused to do security.
A valid question is when will NBA teams, not just individuals, step to the plate and follow the lead of the WNBA.
Jalen Rose, a retired basketball player and ESPN sportscaster, made a very important point on the “First Take” show July 15, when he stated that police brutality is rooted in slavery and the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which legally sanctioned that Black people were “three-fifths a human being.” He also implied that white supremacy hasn’t been overcome in the 50-plus years since the Civil Rights bills were passed. Rose stated that police brutality is nothing new; what is new is the videotaping of this violence that allows it to be widely disseminated so quickly on social media. These graphic videos have traumatized viewers, but also helped to raise consciousness on this brutal police war.
Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, characterized the murders of Sterling and Castile as lynchings.
There is very little doubt that the protests that have shut down interstate highways, organized by the Black Lives Matter movement since the deaths of Sterling and Castile became widely known, have inspired these athletes to take a more visible stand.
Many young whites have stood shoulder to shoulder with Black and Brown people in the streets. It is very unfortunate that white athletes, except for a few, have been virtually silent on police killings. This works to the advantage of the police and those they serve.
In many instances, these athletes have made a decision to equate the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police with the deaths of the five Dallas police officers at a BLM protest on July 7. The reasons for doing this may vary, from those who want to show support for the police to those who want to minimize any backlash. Many athletes also reflect a general societal idea that there are good cops and bad cops.
Because the police see themselves as above any reproach, many of them view anyone supporting the BLM movement as being anti-police and, therefore, their enemy. It is an attempt on the part of the police to divert any attention away from the fact that they expect unconditional respect and fear.
All violence is not the same
President Barack Obama hosted a televised town hall meeting, “The President and the People: A National Conversation” in Washington, D.C., that was broadcast the evening of July 14. Obama answered questions from Sterling’s son, a BLM activist and pro-cop representatives, among others. Seated in the audience was Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown. Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, was not allowed to participate in the discussion, which was recorded and edited earlier in the day.
Obama’s main plea, very similar to the one he made at the memorial for the five slain Dallas cops, was for communities of color and the police to dialogue to iron out differences in order to work more closely together. This narrative plays into the myth that since everyone should be viewed as equal, the responsibility to end violence should be equally shared.
LeBron James made a plea for all violence to stop. How can that be when the U.S. is the world’s most powerful capitalist country, built on the backs of slavery, the theft of Indigenous lands and two-thirds of Mexico, wars, occupation and the superexploitation of workers’ labor despite borders?
Capitalism relies on class relations in which a tiny, ruling elite of billionaires, widely known as the 1%, needs a huge repressive state to keep it in power to make more and more profits off the backs of oppressed labor. These rulers rely on the police to keep them in power and the masses in check. What other reason could there be that 99.9 percent of killer cops don’t face arrests, indictments or convictions, when Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples are expendable in their eyes? Instead, the most these cops may face is “administrative leave,” “desk duty” or rarely, “firing.” The laws under capitalism exist to legally shield the cops, not to bring them to justice.
Let’s be clear. Gun violence in communities of color is not the same as gun violence by the cops. This continues to be an ongoing debate, including among large sectors in society. When oppressed people are forced to exist in subhuman conditions, especially in urban areas where there are no jobs, lack of decent housing, cuts in education and the militarization of schools, mass incarceration, hospital closings and more — when there is no escape from dire poverty — homicide rates and drug abuse take place in disproportionately higher numbers.
The police as a repressive force are armed occupiers of these communities who become judge, jury and executioner. Killings and brutality based on racial profiling are rubber-stamped by the capitalist state on behalf of the interests of the bosses and bankers. The reality is that the police, along with other repressive institutions like the FBI, CIA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the prisons, etc., are above the law because they maintain the racist status quo.
Many of these athletes are now trying to figure out how best to turn their words into actions. Some are afraid that if they speak out too loud and too militantly, they risk losing millions of dollars in endorsements. Others may fear losing some of their fan base. And, of course, many fear some kind of retaliation from the police, just as the Lynx experienced.
What is most important for revolutionaries to prioritize is continuing to broaden the political support for Black and Brown activists who refuse to let demonization, marginalization and isolation push back the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in light of the Dallas killings, the Baton Rouge shooting of police on July 17 and other diversions the police and politicians may use to gain back any dwindling sympathy for them.
The strengthening of this political support will reinforce confidence among athletes to take bolder actions, like those of the great Muhammad Ali, when he refused to be recruited into the military to fight in Vietnam, or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised clenched fists at the 1968 Olympics to protest racism at home. They will continue to bring attention to police violence, with the understanding that they will not be alone in their efforts.
Moorehead is the 2016 presidential candidate for Workers World Party.
She is the daughter of the late basketball coach Isaac Moorehead, whose women’s and men’s teams won Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships during the 1970s and 1980s at Norfolk State University, a historically Black college in Norfolk, Va.