In February, the host of the Fox News show The Igraham Angle, Laura Ingraham, told Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James to “Shut up and dribble” when he spoke out against President Donald Trump on an episode of Uninterrupted.
Ingraham believes that James, who through his LeBron James Foundation has donated millions of dollars to charitable organizations, should not use his platform to speak out against Trump’s policies or comments he thinks are “laughable and scary” because, according to her, he is “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball.”
Athletes using their positions to draw attention to political and social issues isn’t new. During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists, seen as a Black Power salute, during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.
Smith donned a black scarf to symbolize Black pride, and Carlos wore beads, which he said “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up too,” according to the book Pan-Africanism: Political Philosophy and Socio-Economic Anthropology for African Liberation and Governance.
There are some glaring similarities between Smith and Carlos’ protest and that of former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the NFL’s 2016-2017 season. The baller has been vocal for almost two years about sitting or kneeling during the playing of the national anthem during his games to protest the unjust treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement in the U.S.
“People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country,” he said in August 2016 when he began to protest. “There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
The anger directed toward Kaepernick was great and swift. He opted to be a free agent at the end of the season and has remained unemployed since. As outrage grew and other players joined him, the meaning behind kneeling changed.
Those who criticized the quarterback said that it was disrespectful to the flag and to the military, even though he got the idea to kneel from Nate Boyer, a former Seattle Seahawks player and U.S. veteran, who advised him that kneeling rather than sitting, which is how he began his protest, would be more respectful to the military.
“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer said in a September 2016 episode of HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
President Trump called for NFL owners to fire any player who took part of the silent protest, infamously saying, “Get that son of a b*tch off the field right now,” during a campaign rally in Alabama last September.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the NFL, under the stewardship of league commissioner Roger Goodell, implemented a new policy that would fine players for not standing during the “Star- Spangled Banner,” but they have the option to remain in the locker room.
The Trump administration saw the new policy as a victory, but sports fans saw a stark difference between how the NFL and the NBA handle their players using their position as athletes to speak out on social issues.
“I think when you have a league that supports guys talking, it definitely gives you confidence in going out and saying something without fear of losing a job,” Donovan Mitchell, star rookie of the Utah Jazz told EBONY at the NBA Awards.
That support is something that is echoed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who while accepting a trophy for League of the Year at last month’s Sports Business Awards believes players should “not stick to sports.”
Silver, who also attended the NBA Awards in Los Angeles on Monday, said he couldn’t compare the NBA with other leagues, but that the relationship with his players remains important.
“We build a very close relationship with our Players Association,” he told EBONY. “We recognize that we may disagree on somethings…but you try to work through issues together. That’s what we’ve done.”
Even former NFL players recognize that the NBA’s allowing players to use their platforms to draw attention to issues works because the league recognizes that players hold the power.
“If the NFL can take anything from what the NBA has done is to take that blueprint and understand that the players have a voice and they’re allowing them to use that voice in the most positive way possible,” former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens told EBONY. “I think that’s what’s missing when you try to compare the two.”
In March, the Sacramento Kings partnered with Black Lives Matter to “fundamentally transform black communities through deep investment in black youth in Sacramento,” following the shooting death of Stephon Clark by two police officers.
Do you think the NFL would ever allow one of its teams to work with Black Lives Matter when they won’t hire players who bring attention to police brutality? Probably not.
As the debate on athletes taking a stand on social issues continues to make headlines, it’s become increasingly clear to sports fans who want their players to stand for something that the NBA is the league to beat, and so far, it appears that the NFL doesn’t even want to catch up.
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Teddy is a multimedia journalist who serves as the culture and political writer for EBONY. His work has appeared in NBC's Owned and Operated stations, as well as DNAInfo, which covered local neighborhood news in New York City. He received his Masters in Journalism from the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY in 2017.