America’s ongoing racial difficulties have been on full view with the grand juries in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City deciding not to indict white police officers for incidents that left two unarmed African-American men dead. Since last week, a wide variety of protests have been ongoing—and have now extended from the streets to the courts.
NBA players aren’t known for taking political stances; after all, that could hurt their marketability and they are generally living in a bubble world where what’s going on in the news doesn’t affect them. But in a year where athletes are making political news off the field—albeit in a different sport, with the NFL and player embroiled in a domestic violence crisis—things are different.
Yet the NFL’s now-stricter personal conduct policy for players is not the NBA’s personal conduct policy, with the basketball league deciding to take a pass on penalizing players for joining the mass protests by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts on the court—a place where a sponsorship deal with adidas stipulates they should be wearing its logo instead.[more]
LeBron James decided to wear a “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt: pic.twitter.com/lj6lLZocQI
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) December 9, 2014
“It’s really important to us that we stand up for a cause, especially this one,” said Cleveland Cavaliers player Kyrie Irving, ESPN reports. “It hits close to home and means a lot to me.” Last season, more than 76 percent of the league’s players were African-American, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card issued by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida.
Irving was one of the players who donned t-shirts with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on them Monday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn at a global photo opp, as the Cavs took on the Nets in front of Royal Couple Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and the hundreds of journalists they had in tow, according to the New York Times. The phrase refers to the words Garner said while being choked by a NYPD officer in the moments before his death.
On Saturday, Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose wore his own “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during pregame warm-ups.
When LeBron James mentioned that he was looking for one of his own, the New York-based social-justice organization Gathering for Justice went into overdrive to have shirts made up for James and his teammates as well as for the Nets players in time for Monday night’s big matchup in front of the Royal Couple and their attending media, the New York Times reports.
The shirts were secretly distributed and made an immediate impact as photos of players wearing the shirts and hanging out with Jay Z began to go viral. The rapper didn’t put one of the shirts on only because they were too big for him, the NYT notes.
The shirts have also been popping up on players in other sports, including the NFL. Even so, the NBA is not a fan of the protest action at its games—almost all of the Los Angeles Lakers wore similar shirts during pregame warm-ups Tuesday night, for example, the Associated Press reports.
On Monday, before the Cavs and Nets had walked out onto the court in their pregame attire, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expressed his dislike of the shirts in a prepared statement: “I respect Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules,” he said.
Even so, the league isn’t planning to fine the players even though they are contractually bound to wear adidas gear before games. To fine the players for this action would put the NBA in an untenable position with the players and a large part of its fan base.
Silver is smartly sidestepping that, but if the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts continue to be worn, the league will need to address the issue in some way. Perhaps adidas should go ahead and make “official” versions for the players. And perhaps by the time Prince George attends his first NBA game, the players will be wearing “I Can Breathe” t-shirts.