Baffoe: Appreciating What Sports Figures Are Going To Say About Police Shootings

By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) “What am I going to say?”

That’s what nagged at New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony as he woke the morning after the shooting and killing of police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas last Thursday, according to an op-ed he penned Wednesday.

Anthony’s question is more profound that its six words, showing an important self-awareness of his unique position in the discussion of Dallas and the police killings of black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the days prior. He understands that his voice carries a certain weight, gets more eyes and ears than the average American (and that gets him a piece published in The Guardian after a poignant Instagram post with more than 75,300 likes). Also, though, Anthony is aware that his voice on a tumultuous issue and the larger American climate to which it’s connected is necessary.

You and I have the question of “What am I going to say?” cross our minds because we live in a social media world where, even if compelled by conscience to comment on a social issue, we unconsciously feel left out if we don’t add our drop to the bucket. Anthony’s thoughts on sociopolitics aren’t mere drops. He’s a pro athlete who has visited prisoners at Rikers Island in order to better understand our messed-up criminal justice system and who has marched with protesters in Baltimore. He isn’t a Twitter egg with an ego larger than a follower account who thinks he’s adding something groundbreaking to the conversation.

Sports figures must comment on society because sports are already a commentary on society — race, gender, sexuality, labor. That intersection of sports and sociopolitical isn’t debatable anymore. And to ask sports figures to “know their role” and “stick to sports” shows an ignorance of what that role is and what sports are beyond the chalk. They must speak on this while carefully considering what their words are really saying.

So it’s a good development that the New York Liberty wore shirts reading “#BlackLivesMatter #Dallas5” prior to their Sunday game against the San Antonio Stars. That says, “We recognize the historically diminished value of African-American life that persists today and we appreciate the law enforcement officers who died supporting and protecting that recognition.”

Ditto for the Minnesota Lynx donning shirts with messages, names and the Dallas police shield.

The Lynx said, “Change starts with us.” That change should include sports figures getting away from the habit of keeping mum or pandering to the status quo to avoid controversy or compromising of their #brand.

What’s a bad move is off-duty police officers leaving their posts at the Lynx game in response and removing their names from a list to work future Lynx games. What that says is that police duty is “serve and protect … if we agree with your politics.”

It’s good that Baltimore Ravens tight end Ben Watson wrote in The Undefeated that when it comes to much-needed discussions on race in America, “How many of us don’t even want to put our feet in someone else’s shoes because we’re so ingrained in what we think? That’s a problem.”

Watson is saying not only must we not ignore the elephant that has been in the room for the entire existence of this country, but we need to stop producing air — particularly if we are in positions of privilege, white people — and start listening to and consuming the testimonials of those who live the turmoil, the research of those who have studied it and the translations of allies who have done a lot of the ongoing listening and consuming already.

It’s not what Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell posted on Instagram after the deaths of Sterling and Castile but before the Dallas incident and then deleted — a cartoon image of a police officer having his throat slashed, a la executions committed in ISIS propaganda videos. That makes the mistake of so many who barge into this nuanced argument and say, “This is very simple” and end up sabotaging rather than helping.

The relationship between cops, race and violence is too layered to go such a reductive route and derail otherwise productive conversation. At least Crowell made a video apology, saying that: “I became part of the problem. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution. To back that up, my first game check is going to the Dallas Fallen Officers Foundation.”

Still, to the many who play this conversation as a game, Crowell is branded the guy who scored for the fictionally significant team that advocates death to police officers.

Anthony searched deep for his message.

“I didn’t want it to be the same things as everybody else: #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile, #DallasPoliceShooting,” Anthony wrote. “When I chose to speak out, it was a matter of being honest, speaking from the heart about what’s going on and calling on my colleagues to step up, get out there and put pressure on the people in charge to not let this happen anymore. No more hashtags.”

Tweeting an objective hashtag like Anthony points out does little more than reduce a profound social media voice to one of those bucket drops. But an athlete tweeting one that contains a political statement like #BlackLivesMatter is salient. It says, “I am a jock who gets that this is not a threat to whiteness but a threat to ignorance.”

Declaring your ignorance is responding with “All Lives Matter” or any other attempt to diminish what is represented by #BlackLivesMatter. A member of The Tenors, the Canadian group who sang “O Canada” prior to Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game, held up a sign during the performance that read “All Lives Matter” and altered a line in the song to shoehorn that same line. Besides injecting a Canadian song into an American issue and besides the disrespect to that anthem and its country, the message sent by that Tenor whose actions the rest of the group disavowed afterward says, “I’m too lazy to examine how irrational this sounds.”

The only Canadian-born player in the All-Star Game, Michael Saunders, was asked about the stunt and replied:

“He obviously held up the sign, and that meant a lot. You have to appreciate his beliefs, and his right. That was his way, I guess, of doing what he had to do.

“It was about his message that he wanted to send, which is a great message, obviously. He felt like he needed to send that message during the anthem.”

I don’t have to appreciate those beliefs when they have been established as counterproductive, fallacious and willfully ignorant. But Saunders called it “a great message, obviously,” which speaks to his lack of education on what that message involves now and historically, and I’m willing to bet many of his baseball colleagues share that lack.

(By the way, a fun game to play with people who say “All Lives Matter” is to respond “Thank you for supporting Black Lives Matter.” They will obviously deny they’ve done this, but point out that “all lives” includes “black lives” and that by saying “all lives matter” one is declaring that “black lives matter.” Thank them again. As their contorted faces twist and struggle with this conundrum, walk away.)

Such a lack of information permeating the notorious bubble that is a baseball clubhouse is why sports figures need to continue a dialogue on this, need to be endorsed as willing participants. They should speak in the locker room when appropriate and in public, use their influence on one another and the fans who deemed them long ago arbiters of culture. They shouldn’t be discouraged from speaking on uncomfortable truths such as race and guns, just as politicians who actually choose not to dance around such an issue shouldn’t be.

Anthony’s new teammate Joakim Noah isn’t dividing when he told the New York Post this:

“It’s just very sad what’s going on in this country. Not just the police brutality, that’s getting a lot of the headlines right now, but just kids killing kids, and kids having access to automatic rifles, and school shootings … It’s just disappointing that these laws aren’t changing. It’s almost like you hear all these things, and you almost become numb to the realities. This is not normal. They have to change the laws. They have to change the gun laws.”

Hopefully when sports figures inevitably ask themselves “What am I going to say?” as Anthony did, they do enough critical thinking before saying it. Hopefully they find Anthony’s profundity. And when they do, hopefully we encourage them speak.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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