When It Comes to Sports Protests, Are T-Shirts Enough?

By Jamilah King Dec 18, 2014

Political protests by elite athletes have returned to playing fields and basketball courts.

In the two weeks since a grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York City cop who was videotaped using a fatal chokehold on an unarmed, black father, Eric Garner, elite athletes have worn pre-game T-shirts adorned with protest slogans. The specifics of the messages are different — #blacklivesmatter, "I Can’t Breathe" — but the intent is the same: to call attention to the police and vigilante violence against black men such as Garner and Michael Brown, and children including Tamir Rice.

Last weekend, several high-profile college teams got in on the action, including the women’s basketball teams from Notre Dame and Cal.

With that action, the players followed Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose:

And most of the Lakers:

And Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James:

And Brooklyn Nets players:

These elite athletes certainly have the political cover: The country is swept up in massive protests, the likes of which it hasn’t seen in years. Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in New York City’s Washington Square Park. In Oakland, protesters shut down freeways and barricaded themselves in front of that city’s police headquarters. Celebrities including Jesse Williams and Ava DuVernay have founded an activist network of their own and called for economic boycotts.

Even the president weighed in: "I think LeBron did the right thing. We forget the role that Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, and Bill Russell played in raising consciousness," Obama reportedly told People magazine. "I’d like to see more athletes do that — not just around this issue, but around a range of issues."

According to Lakers star Kobe Bryant, the issue of police and vigilante killings of black men has hit "the mainstream"

"You’re kind of seeing a tipping point right now, in terms of social issues. It’s become at the forefront right now as opposed to being a local issue," he told reporters post-game. "It’s really something that has carried over and spilled into the mainstream, so when you turn on the TV and you watch the news or you follow things on social media, you don’t just see African-Americans out there protesting."

Bryant continued: "I think it’s us supporting that movement and supporting each other. The beauty of our country lies in its democracy. I think if we ever lose the courage to be able to speak up for the things that we believe in, I think we really lose the value that our country stands for."

In his weekly Edge of Sports column, Dave Zirin expanded on the movement’s significance in the world of sports. "Seeing the movement impinge upon the highly sanitized, deeply authoritarian world of sports is not only a reflection of just how widespread the outpouring of anger has been," Zirin wrote. "These athletic protests also shape the movement, giving more people the confidence to get in the streets and puncturing the self-imposed bubbles of those who want to pretend that all is well in the world. It is politicizing sports fans and educating those who think that sports in general–and athletes in particular–have nothing to offer the struggle for a better world."

That struggle isn’t lost on people who’ve lived through other major political moments.

Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he supported his star running back, Reggie Bush, who wrote "I can’t breathe" on his warm-ups before a recent game. "I grew up in the ’60s, where everybody was socially conscious," he later told reporters. "I believe in it. I’d be a hypocrite if I stood up here and told you any differently, because more than likely, some of those protests that Dr. [Martin Luther] King and some of the others that took a part in non-violent protests, is the reason why I’m standing here in front of you today."

Of course there’s a long and storied history of political demonstrations by athletes. Most notably, in 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the army and was convicted of draft evasion. Though he avoided prison, he was banned from boxing for three years. In 1968 U.S. track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their leather-clad fists for black power at the Olympics in Mexico City.

But this isn’t the ’60s. Sports leagues are much more powerful now than they were back then. Back in 1969, a whether professional football was sustainable. Today, the NFL is worth an estimated $1.43 billion and most of that money comes from broadcast and sponsorship deals. When NFL games appear on the three big networks, they average more than 20 million viewers per contest, easily making them the most watched live programs in the country.

While political actions have become less, they haven’t disappeared completely. When he played for the Denver Nuggets, point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for "The Star Spangled Banner" before games. The practicing Muslim argued that, in addition to the song conflicting with his religious beliefs, the American flag was a symbol of tyranny. In 1996, Abdul-Rauf was suspended for one game before brokering a compromise with the league in which he stood for the song, but looked downward and silently mouthed an Islamic prayer. Years later, when Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall broke league protocol and wore green socks to bring attention to mental health awareness month, he was fined $15,000.

But even when athletes don’t face fines, they do face plenty of public ridicule. Derrick Rose learned that the hard way recently Chicago sports editor Cody Westerlund lambasted his t-shirt tribute to Garner and questioned whether Rose was smart enough to articulate his position. 

So far in the protests for Eric Garner, Mike Brown and Tamir Rice, there haven’t been any fines. That’s probably emboldened many athletes. But are we seeing a revolution on the field?

Not quite, especially if you take into account a damning report in the Washington Post noting that some of the shirts are made in sweatshops by workers who make as little as $6 each day.

Michael Skolnick, political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, played a pivotal role in helping to secure T-shirts for players to coincide with nationwide protests. The shirts came from a store in Long Island City whose manufacturer is a Canadian company with a poor workers’ rights record called Gildan.

Skolnick later apologized for not doing his due diligence. "I think we want to assume sometimes when we’re ordering shirts that they’re not being made in a sweatshop," he said in an interview with The Post. "We’ve got to do better."

But doing better means that you’re at least doing something. Times have changed since 1990 when Michael Jordan reportedly told a friend that he wouldn’t endorse a black, Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in his North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms because, "Republicans wear sneakers, too."

Today, if you want to see the impact of these athletes’ actions, look no further than the police unions and conservative commentators who hate to see an anti-establishment message displayed on such a prominent stage. In late November when a Ferguson grand jury declined to charge former officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death, St. Louis Rams players took to the field with their hands up. The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association demanded an apology— but didn’t get one.

And last weekend, after Cleveland Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt that said "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford," that city’s police union also demanded an apology.

Hawkins responded this way: "If I was to run away from what I felt in my soul was the right thing to do, that would make me a coward and I couldn’t live with that," Hawkins said, before his fear, as a father, that something similar might happen to his own son, who’s 2. "My number one reason for wearing the T-shirt was the thought of what happened to Tamir Rice happening to my little Austin. And that scares the living hell out of me."

Athletes are plugging into movements that are being fueled by ordinary people without national platforms. Though their actions are symbolic, they’re important. Now that more and more athletes feel emboldened to speak to their massive audiences, it’s up to us to listen.