Orange Great Etan Thomas Talks Career Activism

Etan Thomas, spoke at the SUNY Oswego Marano Campus Center Monday as part of the college’s I Am Oz Diversity Speaker Series. Thomas, who played basketball at Syracuse University from 1996 to 2000 before an 11-year NBA career, talked about his new book “We Matter: Athletes and Activism,” which explores the roles athletes play in social and political movements.

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OSWEGO — The leading shot blocker in Syracuse University Men’s Basketball history — now an author and activist — visited SUNY OswegoMonday night to offer a different kind of rejection than those local basketball fans remember from his time holding down the paint for the Orange.

Etan Thomas, now 40 and nearly a decade removed from his 11-year NBA career, blasted the idea that athletes should stay silent on social and political issues in the Marano Campus Center Auditorium as part of the college’s I Am Oz Diversity Speaker Series. Thomas engaged in an hour-long conversation with SUNY Oswego Assistant Professor Brian Moritz and answered questions from students about the role athletes have played and continue to play in social movements.

A former Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Thomas is a writer and the author of the new book “We Matter: Athletes and Activism,” which is a collection of interviews and commentary with athletes, media personalities, activists and others. As part of the book, Thomas interviewed Jahvaris Fulton — the brother of Trayvon Martin — who said athlete activism, particularly that of the Miami Heat, brought attention to the death of Trayvon Martin.

“Hearing athletes discuss that — it just resonates a little bit differently with mainstream America,” Thomas said.

Thomas, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Huffington Post and ESPN, said part of his motivation behind writing his most recent book was to add some nuance to the conversations surrounding Colin Kaepernick and other issues that were lacking depth.

“I think that’s the part that was missing from a lot of the coverage,” Thomas said of the way the media portrays issues. “I just wanted to show a different side.”

Though Kaepernick has said the act of kneeling during the National Anthem was not about the military, the anthem or the flag, but aimed at bringing awareness to police brutality, systemic racism and the political process, the issue has been a flashpoint for criticism, with people all the way up to President Donald Trump demanding Kaepernick show more respect for the military and the flag.  

“That’s what happens somebody wants to twist your message to make sure everybody is against you,” Thomas said. “It’s almost where it’s become that it has to be one side or the other. It can’t be where you have two sides that disagree and then we’re going to work to see if we can get to a middle ground.”

Both sides of the political spectrum “don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable,” Thomas said, adding people often try to shut down and discredit those with opposing views without ever attempting to discuss the issues.

With the rise of social media, Thomas said athletes have become more comfortable expressing their political and social views in ways that many weren’t in previous decades. Back in his playing days, Thomas said athletes largely had to wait until a reporter asked them a question and then hope the reporter conveyed their feelings properly.

“And a lot of times they didn’t get it right, so players wouldn’t want to take that chance,” he said. “But now with social media you can bypass that and use your own words.”

Thomas said “it’s a beautiful time right now” to see athletes using their voice. Athletes have a tremendous opportunity, Thomas said, noting Lebron James has as many followers on social media as President Donald Trump.

Athletes, however, must be prepared to passionately defend their positions after speaking out, Thomas said, adding athletes are criticized all the time. When people don’t agree with what athletes say, the response is often that athletes should “stay in their lane” or “shut up and play,” Thomas said, pointing out Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali — now lionized for their outspoken ways — were told the same things when they spoke out against segregation and war decades ago.

“When you look down the line — say decades later — I can only guarantee you that Kaepernick is going to be described in a different way than he is described now,” he said. “They’re going to talk about him for the courage and everything like that… that’s the way history does it.”

As a member of the NBA’s Washington Wizards, Thomas spoke out against the war in Iraq and said he was told he didn’t know what he was talking about or that he shouldn’t be speaking on the subject.

Athletes should be able to speak out and use their platform to promote change, Thomas says, but shouldn’t feel obligated to take a stand. He said it’s important to bring that message to young people, because younger people are “always where the change is going to be.”

“Young people are the ones who are going to inherit everything and they’re going to be the change that matters,” Thomas said. “There’s this level of consciousness and they’re passionate about so many different things that sometimes somebody needs to tell them that they don’t have to wait. They can be the leaders, they can be the mouthpiece, they can be the people right now.”