The Atlanta Hawks traveled to Madison Square Garden on a crisp, October evening to face off against the New York Knicks. At the end of the Hawks bench, starting small forward Thabo Sefolosha could be spotted in a brown blazer and white button-up shirt, engaging in conversation with teammates. It was the second night of back-to-back games for the Hawks, who had suffered an opening night loss to the Detroit Pistons the day before. Team doctors are holding the swingman out of the latter half of back-to-backs as a precautionary measure to ensure full recovery from a broken leg that Sefolosha suffered this past April in a skirmish with the New York City Police Department.
After clinching the NBA's Southeast Division title towards the tail end of the 2014-2015 regular season, Sefolosha and few of his Atlanta Hawks teammates decided to go celebrate at a New York City nightclub. In the midst of the celebration, an altercation occurred in which he had no involvement. Law enforcement officials appeared and forced everyone in attendance to evacuate the premises. As Sefolosha exited the night club, witnesses say he spotted a homeless man, whom he attempted to give $20 before being abruptly interrupted by the police.
After a series of verbal exchanges, the group of officers grabbed the Swiss hoops star, wrestled him to the ground, resulting in Sefolosha suffering a broken leg during the scuffle and causing him to miss the remainder of the 2014-2015 season as well as the playoffs.
Racial profiling and physical abuse at the hands of the police is an issue that has permeated throughout the communities of African Americans and other minorities for decades. It has become increasingly prevalent in recent years with the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and countless other victims. As displayed by the “Black Lives Matter” movement and several other national protests, it is obvious that minorities have reached a breaking point with the behavior of unsavory law enforcement officials. In a recent report conducted by CNN, it was noted that 67% of police officers receive little to no discipline when acting with excessive force against citizens (and that’s without obvious racial biases). The blatant abuse of authority combined with the absence of accountability for many of the officers involved in several of these documented incidents, have left the minority communities of America emotionally deflated.
Incidents like these have noticeably increased through 2015. Outside of Sefolosha, retired tennis star James Blake was in a similar conflict with an undercover New York City police officer. While awaiting transportation to the U.S. Open Championships, Blake was misidentified as a suspect in a fraudulent credit card ring. The officer immediately charged towards Blake, tackled him to the ground and handcuffed him, instructing him not to speak. Suspicions immediately surfaced as to whether or not Blake was mistreated due to his race.
John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks recently suspected that he was racially profiled while trying to shop for a Rolex watch at a Whitefish Bay jewelry store. Henson, an African-American, placed a call to Schwanke-Kasten Jewelry on October 16th, to inquire about the store’s business hours. Store owners immediately contacted the police stating the calls made about the store hours were possibly made by individuals that were not “legitimate” customers. Henson arrived to the store only to find that it had been closed 30 minutes early due to ownership’s suspicion of his initial call. Upon his return to the store the following business day, he was approached and questioned by police, as store owners had identified his vehicle to the authorities. Only after it was confirmed that the power forward was a member of the Milwaukee Bucks was he granted access to the store to shop for his Rolex.
Apologies were made to both Blake and Henson, but no one knows for certain if these acts of atonement would have been offered had these individuals not been professional athletes. Thabo Sefolosha has taken civil action against the NYPD after being acquitted of all charges in a court of law. However, the solution to these types of issues lie in what happens next from these athletes.
After Sefolosha receives a settlement out of court from the NYPD to smooth things over, then what? At what point do these sequences of events stop becoming just another trending topic that causes a brief uproar, only to disintegrate weeks later without any substantial impact being made?
Popularity, financial status, and heightened influence on modern society provide professional athletes with a voice that allows for justice (or attention, at the very least) to be served in nefarious instances of prejudice such as these. But individuals in positions of power tend to pick their battles strategically. Athletes and entertainers alike are far too inconsistent with when, why, or how they utilize their platform within controversial sectors such as race relations. The fear of speaking up could be possibly tarnish their personal brands and affect the heftiness of their wallets.
However, athletes have a unique opportunity to act as pioneers that can open the proverbial floodgates of justice that could not only protect them, but also the average citizen of color. As with any movement, someone must assume the responsibility of leader, sacrificing popularity and likeness to evoke significant change. Not to be cliché, but think of every action as a seed for a proverbial tree. Had Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shied away from this responsibility as high-profile figures in the 1960s, there’s no doubt that the landscape for minorities in America would be fundamentally different. Not to mention how that would affect the athletes we revere today and the opportunities they’ve received to perform on the absolute highest platforms.
Therefore, it is the responsibility that athletes begin to take initiative to assist in the fight against mistreatment by the authorities. Athletes have a prevalent influence on individuals of all color and creeds, allowing them to be the catalyst to mend the relationship between the police and the minority groups of America. Imagine the effect of seeing a figure such as LeBron James on the front line of a “Black Lives Matter” protest openly vocalizing his dissatisfaction with the actions of police towards his race.
Not only would that evoke an immense amount of pride within the African American race; but it would also send shockwaves throughout the entire country to see a man of his stature, with all he has to lose, putting it aside to stand for what is right. It is critical that they recognize this responsibility instead of passing it off to others or avoiding it altogether. Whenever ownership of that responsibility is claimed, we will have taken another step towards the change that we all so desperately desire.