News looks back at a year of athletes involved in social activism

Carmelo Anthony had a helluva year.

The Knicks are a mess and have been dormant in free agency. His marriage is on the rocks. And he continues to watch as his peers get to experience the annual postseason successes he’s still yet to accomplish after 14 seasons in the NBA.

But lost in the buzzsaw of everything that happened to Anthony in the last 365 days, was maybe the most important thing he’s ever done: Decide to be an advocate against injustices, while using his platform to speak for those who still go unheard.

On July 5, 2016, Alton Sterling was murdered by police in Baton Rouge. The body cameras that were supposed to help, didn’t. The Department of Justice decided not to bring charges against the officers.

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On July 6, 2016, the world watched as Philando Castile was murdered in front of his girlfriend and daughter on Facebook Live. Officer Jeronimo Yanez got off, and the NRA and the “All Lives Matter” camp have been silent, as usual.

By July 8, 2016, Anthony had seen enough.

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Shortly after Carmelo Anthony’s Instagram post following highly publicized police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade & LeBron James joined him on stage for statement at ESPYs, reminiscent of when athletes such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor came together in 1967 to support Muhammad Ali in his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

(Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

”First off let me start off by saying ‘All Praise Due To The Most High.’ Secondly, I’m all about rallying, protesting, fighting for OUR people. Look I’ll even lead the charge, By Any Means Necessary. We have to be smart about what we are doing though. We need to steer our anger in the right direction. The system is Broken. Point blank period. It has been this way forever. Martin Luther King marched. Malcolm X rebelled. Muhammad Ali literally fought for US. Our anger should be towards the system. If the system doesn’t change we will continue to turn on the TVs and see the same thing. We have to put the pressure on the people in charge in order to get this thing we call JUSTICE right. A march doesn’t work. We tried that. I’ve tried that. A couple social media post/tweet doesn’t work. We’ve all tried that. That didn’t work. Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work. While I don’t have a solution, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people don’t have a solution, we need to come together more than anything at this time. We need each other. These politicians have to step up and fight for change. I’m calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or who’s going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE. Peace7

#StayMe7o”

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That was the statement Anthony made on his Instagram account that day. It was accompanied by the famed photo of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the summit that Ali put together in 1967, that brought together some of the top Black athletes from that era to support Ali’s refusal to be a part of the U.S. Army’s draft.

That day in Cleveland was a moment, and so was July 8, for Anthony. And we would soon find out that even more were on the way.

Five days later, Anthony joined the rest of the members of The Brotherhood (LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade) on stage to open The ESPYs with a speech that sent the world a very clear message: We’re done being silent.

“But, in this moment of celebration, we asked to start the show tonight this way — the four of us talking to our fellow athletes with the country watching. Because we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America. The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us.

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The system is broken. The problems are not new. The violence is not new. And the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency to create change is at an all-time high.”

While we’d seen members of The Brotherhood take stances in the past, that night they took matters to another level.

Chris Paul serves as the President of the National Basketball Players Association. James is his First Vice President, and Anthony serves as one of six other Vice Presidents. Paul was also willing to boycott the 2014-2015 season at one point if all remnants of Clippers owner Donald Sterling hadn’t been removed from the NBA after a recording of him making racist statements surfaced.

Since returning to Chicago, Wade has been at the forefront of being a voice for his hometown, as the city continues to deal with its gun violence epidemic and the systematic institution of racism that has led to it. Wade even took on Donald Trump during the election when he tried to use the death of Wade’s cousin as a ploy to get Black people to vote for him.

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Back page of the New York Daily News for July 9, 2016

Back page of the New York Daily News for July 9, 2016

(New York Daily News)

James has been involved in all sorts of activism, from leading the Miami Heat in posting a picture in hoodies to commemorate the killing of Trayvon Martin, to spending millions of dollars to send Northeastern Ohio children to college, and not shying away from telling the world that no matter who you are, even the most celebrated athlete in the country, it’s hard being Black in America, after the N-word was spray painted on his California home.

Protests were not just limited to men’s sports either, as several stars of the WNBA, a league with players with the most to lose, earning an average salary of just over $ 70,000 per year, entered the arena in July. Just days after Anthony’s call for action, four members of the Minnesota Lynx, including three-time champ and 2014 MVP Maya Moore, held a press conference to address their concerns about police brutality in the wake of Castile’s killing that occurred less than 20 minutes from the Target Center. The players wore t-shirts that read “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability” on the front, and on the back listed the names of Sterling and Castile as well as the Dallas Police Department, who were ambushed in a violent, bloody shootout that killed five officers in response to the two men’s death.

“You’ll see on the backs of our shirts that we’re highlighting a longtime problem of racial profiling and unjust violence against blacks in our country,” said Moore “But we do not in any way condone violence against the men and women who service in our police force. Senseless violence and retaliation will not bring us peace.”

Yet despite Moore’s condemnation of all violence and call for peace, four officers refused to provide security for that night’s Lynx game.

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Members of the New York Liberty wore Black Lives Matters shirts during warmups to a game and in September the Indiana Fever’s entire lineup locked arms and kneeled during the national anthem prior to the start of a win-or-go home playoff game to protest police violence.

The Minnesota Lynx wore these shirts, reading CHANGE STARTS WITH US on July 9, 2016.

The Minnesota Lynx wore these shirts, reading CHANGE STARTS WITH US on July 9, 2016.

(Minnesota Lynx via Twitter)

Said Fever coach Stephanie White then, “I’m proud of y’all for doing that together, being in that together. That’s big. That’s big. It’s bigger than basketball, right? Bigger than basketball.”

The Liberty, Fever and Mystics also all refused to answer reporters’ post-game questions unless they related to the Black Lives Matter movement or other social issues.

Mystics guard Natasha Cloud told USA Today that the team’s media blackout would last “until we get support” from the WNBA, and in an interview with Excelle Sports, Player President Tamika Catchings said: “I think it’s important that … as players [we’re] able to utilize our voice and … to basically stand united for what matters to us.”

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In response to the warmup shirts, the league fined each team $ 5,000 and slapped each player with a $ 500 fine, decisions they later overturned.

But before the Instagram post and The ESPYs, Anthony hadn’t said too much. There were the donations he made to Syracuse University, and photos of him walking with protestors in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man from Baltimore who died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody. But beyond those acts, there hadn’t been anything done as bold as what he was about to embark on.

WED., JULY 13, 2016 FILE PHOTO

The WNBA fined the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever and their players for wearing plain black warm-up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers.

(Mark Lennihan/AP)

A little over two weeks after his Instagram post, Anthony hosted a town hall in Los Angeles, bringing teenagers, community leaders and basketball stars such as Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Elena Della Donne into the gymnasium of south L.A. Boys and Girls Club with officers from the Los Angeles Police Department to discuss the fear black youth feel when confronted with law enforcement.

“There were some very, very powerful messages that were being talked about. Not just amongst us as athletes, but among the youth. The youth really spoke out today about how they feel about their community, how they feel about police officers, how they feel about relationships and how we can mend these relationships,” Anthony told USA Today then.

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“We really got a lot of messages out of today. Hopefully we can continue this dialogue, and we created something today that will continue on.”

In the wake of Anthony’s social media post, LeBron James spoke openly about the fear he has for his son’s life were he to be pulled over by the police, tennis great Serena Williams wrote about her own fears of driving as an African-American. And Michael Jordan, who spent his playing career steering clear of fault-line social issues, found cause to speak out against gun violence.

Three months later, Anthony was on the cover of the October edition of ESPN’s The Magazine’s NBA Preview issue, dressed in a black sweater and matching beret, looking like a new age member of the Black Panther Party.

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Former Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown presides over a meeting of top African-American athletes on June 4, 1967, to show support for boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Those present are: (front row) Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor; (back row) Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten.

(Tony Tomsic/NFL)

Basketball was hardly discussed in the interview, as the reasons for his activism were the focal point.

Abdul-Rauf continues his anthem protest in Ice Cube’s Big3 league

“The reason I feel so strongly about my beliefs is that it’s been going on forever. Then a part of me is like, I can’t speak up on every single issue because then it’d be like, Oh, he’s just talking again,” he told the magazine. “But when it’s powerful, timing is everything, and for me the Freddie Gray thing was the one that tipped me off. It was like something just exploded. It was like (snaps fingers) now was the time. Enough is enough. And everybody’s calling me like, ‘We should do this’ or ‘We should do that,’ and I was like, ‘I’m going home. If you want to come with me, you come with me, but I’m going home.’ I’m not calling reporters and getting on the news; I’m actually going there. I wanted to feel that. I wanted to feel that pain. I wanted to feel that tension.”

Black America continues to feel that pain, and tension on a daily basis. We feel for Charleena Lyles, Jordan Edwards, and Terence Crutcher. Because in this country you can get killed by police for being a pregnant woman reporting a burglary, sitting in the passenger seat of your friend’s car after leaving a party, or when your car breaks down on the side of the road.

According to The Guardian, in 2016 Black males between the ages of 15-34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers, and were killed at four times the rate of young White men.

But this is America, where the outcry from Black and Brown mothers gets lost in the uproar from fans booing in the stands because a football player didn’t stand up during an anthem.

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Knicks star Carmelo Anthony stands for the National Anthem before a game at the Garden in February.

Knicks star Carmelo Anthony stands for the National Anthem before a game at the Garden in February.

(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

Since Anthony’s call to action, we have seen athletes from different sports step up and use their voice, whether it be by wearing a t-shirt, or declining a White House invitation from President Trump.

The deaths of Sterling and Castile weren’t just a rallying point for Anthony but were also a wake-up call for other like-minded athletes.

“That was just kind of my tipping point where I was tired of just giving my opinion about something on social media, or hashtagging a name,” says Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins. “I was done with that, and to me, that wasn’t getting enough done. I didn’t know what that meant or looked like to get involved. But, I figured I’d at least start, and that kind of put me on the trail that I’ve been walking ever since.”

Since then, Jenkins, who made his feelings known during the national anthem by raising his right fist in the air, has been focused on making an impact in the places that he’s lived and played and is working with players in the NFL to form a coalition to impact criminal justice reform.

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Twice in the past year Jenkins, joined by other NFL players, has visited Washington D.C. to meet with congressmen from both sides of the aisle to address police brutality and racial injustice.

Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins is at forefront of criminal justice system activism.

Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins is at forefront of criminal justice system activism.

(Stephen Brashear/AP)

Jenkins also joined fellow NFLers Anquan Boldin, Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi in writing an op-ed addressed to the nation and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that centered on our flawed criminal justice system.

And this past week Jenkins, along with a host of other NFL stars, took to the phones to call members of Congress in an effort to advance Sen. Cory Booker’s (D, N.J.) Police Reporting Information Data and Evidence (PRIDE) Act, a bill that would provide grants to states that make use-of-force law enforcement policies publicly available, and also report information on any incident involving the shooting of a civilian by a law enforcement officer. The grants would also go toward training offices on the use of force.

“Last year, a group of five guys traveled to D.C. to meet with legislators about the need for criminal justice reform,” says Jenkins of a coalition that included himself, Quin, Boldin, Josh McCown, and Andrew Hawkins. “Today, we had nearly 20 pro athletes participate in a campaign to draw awareness of a specific bill designed to improve police and community relations. This ongoing work is important in order to see actual movement and change.”

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Athletes have taken things from promoting awareness to a problem to coming together and impacting legislators to shape policy and bridge the gap between the Black community and law enforcement.

“To me, that’s the story of the year,” Jenkins says. “That athletes are mobilizing right now and organizing. And it’s been fun to watch it come together.

Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling (r.) last season may be major reason why NFL team has yet to sign free agent.

Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling (r.) last season may be major reason why NFL team has yet to sign free agent.

(Mike McCarn/AP)

“Especially this offseason, there’s been a lot of mobilizing. There are guys all around, especially in the NFL, in multiple cities doing a lot of work.”

There are at least 25 players in the NFL and NBA that are involved in forming the coalition, and their efforts include donating money, speaking to children in schools and having conversations with politicians who can change legislation.

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“The legislative things don’t get all the attention because it’s kind of a boring story, but it’s definitely very important, and those things matter,” says Jenkins. “You get reminded why you’re doing the work whenever there’s another police killing, but I know I’m really trying to move more towards changing legislation.”

But even still, Colin Kaepernick, whose anthem protests polarized the country, can’t get a job, and Serena Williams has to deal with people making racist comments about her unborn child.

The fear of repercussions is real.

First national anthem protestor Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf still prays during ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as he plays in BIG3 league.

First national anthem protestor Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf still prays during ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ as he plays in BIG3 league.

(Eric Barrow/New York Daily News)

“It’s something that every player has to weigh,” says Jenkins. “It’s one of the reasons why the entire league isn’t full of activists because it comes with a price. And there’s really no way to avoid the possible repercussions of stepping out and pushing for change.”

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No one knows this better than former NBA player Chris Jackson. Because before there was Steph Curry, there was Jackson. But after Jackson converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, his career took a turn when he refused to stand for the national anthem after calling the flag a symbol of oppression.

And though he later made a deal with the NBA to instead stand in prayer, he was eventually blackballed by the NBA, while still being one of the best guards in the league, banished to the bench before finishing his career in Europe. It was the prequel to everything that Kaepernick is dealing with right now.

“I’m not surprised at all,” says Abdul-Rauf about what he sees going on with Kaepernick.

“As soon as it happened I anticipated it. The same thing happened to me. From the death threats to the hate mail. It’s disturbing to me when it’s easy for teams to take back people who were physically abusive and were up on charges. But this is a man who is not only speaking his conscious, but he’s sending planes with food to Somalia, working with Meals on Wheels, and giving shoes and suits away.”

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CELL PHONE IMAGE TAKEN WITH STYLIZED PHOTO APPLICATION. AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY LEBRON JAMES VIA TWITTER FOR EDITORIAL PURPOSES ONLY.

Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling comes years after LeBron James and Heat teammates posted hoodie tweet in protest of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 death.

(AP)

“He’s not committing any criminal acts, but what is happening to him is criminal.”

But while Kaepernick is, unfortunately, the new face of the negative ramifications from being an activist, players today are becoming even more prepared.

This wave of activism from athletes is different from past eras.

“In the past, there have been gestures and things that athletes have done, and they have gone away or moved on after a little bit of time,” says Jenkins. “But this is 100-percent different. In the public’s eye, it started with the protests, but now that we’re past that and everybody is kind of pointing to the repercussions that Colin Kaepernick is dealing with, everybody is assuming that activism is something that players are shying away from. But from the inside, you’re starting to see more and more guys step to the forefront. That’s encouraging, and it doesn’t seem like it’s something that’s going to go away.”

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Which is why what Anthony is doing is something we haven’t quite seen before. Between his contracts and endorsements, Anthony may be one of the wealthiest athletes to ever take such a public stand.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

With players like Jenkins being a part of coalitions that are educating and mobilizing athletes and taking the message directly to legislators, and Anthony being on the cover of magazines, this round of activism has more layers to it. Athletes in different sports and of different notoriety are starting to realize just how important they can be to a cause.

“We’re still athletes at the end of the day,” says Jenkins. “So, we’re not getting ready to take over the baton of the work that the men and women who do the work every single day. We’re not replacing them. We’re trying to learn what they’re doing and what’s out there and amplify their voices, the causes, and the problems. And help move the movement forward.”

In the last year, we’ve seen police shootings and similar injustices continue, leaving people with a sense of hopelessness and frustration.

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As we look back on a year where athletes like Anthony and Jenkins stepped up and Kaepernick kneeled down, we must acknowledge that this week is also the one-year anniversary of the deaths of Sterling and Castile: two of the root causes of Anthony’s and Jenkins’ activism.

The fact that no one in law enforcement has been held culpable is the foundation of what Kaepernick’s protest was all about. It’s a year later, and somehow Kaepernick is the only person who has lost their job, proving that our justice system isn’t set up to hold police officers accountable.

A Washington Post database reports that 963 people were shot and killed by police in 2016, 393 of whom were Black or Hispanic. Forty-eight of them were unarmed.

Now new names become hashtags, as at least 452 people have been shot and killed by police so far this year, with at least 194 of them being Black or Hispanic, and 28 of them unarmed.

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From the outside, it may look as if things have settled down since there haven’t been any grand gestures or sideline protests. It may seem as if players have gone dormant, and returned to their lives as regularly scheduled.

But don’t take that silence as apathy.

New names and faces are stepping up to battle those injustices. Athletes like Jenkins and Anthony are doing the work in front of the cameras and behind closed doors.

Gil Scott-Heron told us that the revolution would not be televised.

The revolution is being tweeted.

And during the last year, athletes have shown us that they’ve spent the better part of the past 365 days educating themselves on how to make sure that this version of the revolution will remain sustainable.

People that are against athletes being activists are going to eventually have to make a choice: get on board, or give up rooting for their favorite players.

This era of athletes isn’t here just to be admired for their physical attributes. You’re going to have to adore them for their intellect, just as much as you do their jump shots.

So, the next time you sport a player’s jersey, make sure you’re a fan of their politics and not just their shooting percentage. 

With EVAN GROSSMAN, STEFAN BONDY

Tags:
nba
new york knicks
carmelo anthony
alton sterling
police shootings
philando castile
racial injustice
trayvon martin
lebron james
dwyane wade
chris paul
jordan edwards
terence crutcher
colin kaepernick
jeff sessions
serena williams

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