I Can’t Breathe: Should athletes spread the message?

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The other night, Kobe Bryant joined a growing movement of NBA players donning an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warmups in reference to the final words from Eric Garner who died at the hands of a chokehold from Staten Island Police.

It led me to wonder, if a growing number of superstars, such as Derrick Rose and Lebron James, hadn’t already wore the shirts, would Kobe have dared to have been the first? How did this come about that players feel comfortable about making this statement?

LeBron James
LeBron James

Before I continue, let me add the disclaimer that when I go to the grave, the Laker faithful will probably add “Kobe Hater” to my tombstone when I can do nothing about it. Just as long as they use a serif-styled font.

My question isn’t really about who did what and when, but why? Should sports be a platform where political messages are exchanged?

Mind you, I’m not against the players’ position. I believe that the Eric Garner case should have made it past the grand jury, but that’s beside the point.

What if there was a player who wholeheartedly supported the decision and wanted to show his support by wearing a shirt with a message of his own? The NBA has about four hundred players. I imagine there’s at least one that holds that view.

Would that player be ostracized by his teammates for making that choice or would his viewpoint be respected? Robert Sacre was the only Laker who didn’t wear the shirt in warm-ups that night. Should he be ostracized (his teammates supported his decision)? Supporting justice for Michael Brown is a popular position among the NBA, but what if there was an issue players took a stand on that was more polarizing?

The league opened the door for this type of expression and now changed the standards for how to meter itself. None of our other major professional leagues allows their players to voice their opinion in this kind of manner and for good reason.

Imagine going to KFC and having to choose between the cashier wearing a pro-choice hat and another with a pro-life button. Whether you have a strong position on the matter or not, you can already sense the tension created. All I wanted was a Pepsi!

Another issue to explore: Let’s say a player wanted to take a stand against a corporation like Monsanto. A protest would come into direct conflict with Sprite, one of the league’s major sponsors. Where is the NBA now allowed to draw the line?

It isn’t a stretch to say that our society isn’t involved politically enough, but if every activity in life becomes a talking point, the world would be one continuous protest and would divide us further. It’s part of the reason why we separate church and state.

Sports are an outlet to escape from the world’s problems. When I want to get passionate about today’s issues, there are plenty of channels with people waiting to scream at me.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose

That’s not to say that athletes should never express themselves. I wish there was a better framework where players can go out into the community and let their positions be known, but the time demands of being a world class athlete leaves little outside opportunity for expression.

I understand that t-shirts might be the easiest way to make a statement, but I believe the players would have a greater influence outside of sport. Imagine the power if the players led a march on Washington DC? Take it one step further and protest instead of attending the all-star game? That would be an excellent form of people using their celebrity status towards a bigger movement.

My message is not to attack the NBA players. If anything, at least they had the balls to do something. But in a world of constant media, stories get turned over and messages fade. It seems so long ago that we were talking about Trayvon Martin. At least this time, we have the t-shirts.

(All photos via YouTube)