Michael Jordan would have never called the President of the United States a bum.
Jordan’s famously neutral approach to politics during his run as the most recognizable athlete on the planet bucked a decades-long trend. In the 1960s and 70s, well known athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, and many others took serious action for causes they believed in, such as the civil rights movement or ending the Vietnam War. They followed in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson and the generation that worked to overcome segregation across the sporting world.
But in the 1980s and ’90s, an exponential rise in the financial incentives of professional sports made Jordan and his contemporaries wary of rocking the boat. Owners, league executives, media members covering the games, and advertisers all had a vested interest in keeping their sports entertainment products politically neutral, and star players were compensated handsomely for it.
During his eleven year NBA career, Etan Thomasplayed alongside many big names, including Jordan on the Wizards. He had a decidedly different view, and a far more outspoken attitude, on social matters than athletes in his era—a view that has made a recent resurgence with today’s NBA superstars like Carmelo Anthony, Steph Curry, and LeBron James, who called Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter while criticizing his decision to “un-invite” Curry and the Golden State Warriors to the White House. Thomas, 40, was ahead of his time in using his platform to address social causes, and sees the advocacy of today’s athletes as a marker for a new era.
“For LeBron to be able to take the stances that he takes kind of goes against the prevailing stance that Michael Jordan took,” Thomas recently said at a panel about athlete activism at The Aspen Institute. “What LeBron is doing is changing everything for athletes.”
Thanks to social media, prominent athletes today have better control over their messages and more opportunities to connect with supporters of a cause.
Back when Thomas was playing, his commentary on social issues didn’t get as much attention. Traditional media outlets simply weren’t interested in unpacking his opinions on topics like the death penalty or the war in Iraq.
“I don’t think political athletes were taken seriously,” says Dave Zirin, a journalist who covers the intersection of sports and politics for The Nation and on his podcast, Edge of Sports. “It wasn’t a thing where they saw good copy, or they thought it would actively repel readers, and that’s why they made that decision to walk away from these terrific stories.”
Zirin, then a reporter for the Prince George’s Post, was the first person to publish a story on Thomas’ opposition to the Iraq War back in 2003.
“Then it kind of went viral before going viral was a thing,” says Thomas.
Of course there was backlash, but Thomas was well prepared to back up his opinions. He started to become active on social issues in high school after a negative experience with the police in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. When he spoke publicly about it, in the media and as a member of the debate team, he realized the platform that he had as a prominent athlete.
Once in the NBA, Thomas’ voice only grew, but his position as a role player limited the platform to spread his message. He noticed that his higher-profile teammates and superstars in the league were reluctant to speak up, though not necessarily because they didn’t care.
Political and social issues did come up in the locker room, says Thomas. As an example, he recalls having lengthy chats with his Wizards teammate and NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas about the importance of voting and elections.
“All my teammates, we all had conversations about what was going on at the time,” Thomas says. “Just guys sometimes don’t make it public.”
Now, in addition to having better means of spreading a social message, and benefitting from a new example set by the game’s top stars, there is also greater acceptance of athlete activism from those in power. Thomas was fortunate to have the support of then-Wizards owner Abe Pollin at the time and is heartened to hear current owner Ted Leonsis express similar feelings.
“We expect so much from our athletes in the NBA,” Leonsis told Thomas in the former NBA player’s recent book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism. “So if we are asking them to be exemplars and leaders and really hold them to this incredibly high standard, why would we say, ‘Be with the people, but don’t have an opinion on issues that directly affect the people’? … These are really experienced, intelligent people who probably know a lot more about what is going on in the community than we do.”
Leonsis has been supportive of current Wizards stars Bradley Beal and John Wall, who have publicly criticized President Trump’s divisive words. Thomas says that Wall told him that watching James and other NBA stars like Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul encourage younger players to speak out has inspired him.
It also helps to be in the nation’s capital. Beal attended Barack Obama’s town hall on gun violence in 2016. The Mystics have gone on group trips to the Newseum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The WNBA as a whole is known for taking a progressive stance on social issues.
“When I was playing here there were always protests going on somewhere about something,” Thomas says. “So it was not hard to find a crowd, or a circle, that feels as passionate as you feel about something and be able to intermingle and speak with them.”
Eventually, event organizers started to invite Thomas to speak or to read his poetry. He has found his voice in this city as an activist, and now speaks at events across the country and hosts a radio show with Zirin on the D.C.-based WPFW.
While the District is unique in its proximity to political power and activity, athletes have yet to break through on Capitol Hill with national policymakers.
“That’s been a space that’s been alienated from athletes,” says Zirin. “Because it feels much more like photo ops for the congresspeople more than promoting political work. …And there’s a lot of class contempt in those circles for athletes.”
Instead, athletes have had more progress at the grassroots level. When the University of Maryland reinstated football coach D.J. Durkin months after the heat stroke death of Jordan McNair, three players—Ellis McKennie, tight end Avery Edwards, and offensive lineman Brendan Moore—walked out of Durkin’s first team meeting.
McKennie, an offensive lineman, tweeted out his disappointment with the school’s decision and felt the community rally around his cause. Maryland fired Durkin a day later.
“I think that’s a space where something that literally is hitting so close to home for these athletes,” says Dr. Michael Friedman, who teaches a course on the history of sports in America at the University of Maryland. “I don’t necessarily see what they did so much as a political statement, but as a highly personal statement. ...They probably saw this as the only way to get justice.”
Thomas would have fit in with this new generation of athletes using their voice. But instead of lamenting that fact, he’s working hard to empower the nation’s youth.
“As I’m going speaking at different colleges and universities, young people are energized. Young athletes are energized,” Thomas says. “You’re gonna see something big happen. I’m really looking forward to it, honestly, because change always comes from the youth. And that’s what’s happening right now.”