With the advent of social media, politically active athletes seem more common now than ever before.
Indeed, N.F.L. players kneeling during the national anthem, a movement started by Colin Kaepernick and echoed by others, became a cultural flash point last season after President Trump aimed his ire on the movement, accusing them of disrespecting the troops.
But before Kaepernick, there was Etan Thomas, an N.B.A. forward who played for nine seasons on the Washington Wizards. Thomas built a reputation for himself as a socially conscious activist and poet, including frequently speaking out against the Iraq War and the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. (Of course decades before Thomas, there were activist athletes like Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.)
In his latest book, “We Matter: Athletes and Activism,” due out on March 6, Thomas interviewed a number of basketball staples, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat, about the consequences of publicly voicing opinions off the court or playing field. He also talked to figures like Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, and Ted Leonsis, who owns three sports franchises, including the Washington Wizards, about their perspectives.
Perhaps most notably, Thomas spoke to family members of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile — all victims of shootings that received widespread attention from prominent athletes.
I spoke to Thomas by phone about the recent comments from conservative commentator Laura Ingraham about LeBron James and Kevin Durant, his experience sharing a locker room with Michael Jordan and why he wrote the book. This is an excerpt from that conversation.
What was your reaction to Laura Ingraham’s “Shut up and dribble” monologue on Fox News that received a backlash?
I spent quite a bit of time on this exact topic in “We Matter.” This is the notion of an athlete’s place. Especially a black athlete’s place: “You should just be grateful,” “How dare you complain,” and “Who are you to speak on this subject?” You heard that criticism back in the day with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and John Carlos.
You heard it after Colin Kaepernick took a knee. Now you’re hearing it with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. It’s not just Laura Ingraham who feels this way. There’s a large segment she was speaking for. If you look at the words she chose: “barely intelligible” and “ungrammatical.” Right there, she was attempting to insult their intelligence as if they don’t have the qualifications to speak on this subject.
The line that stood out to me the most was “Must they run their mouths like that?”
Of course. It’s the same thing. That’s the whole “Shut up and play.” This is not a new thing though. She, of course, verbalized it. But this is something that happens whenever an athlete speaks out.
You briefly overlapped with Michael Jordan when he made his second comeback with the Wizards. He is famously reported to have said “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” when it came to political activism. Did you clash in the locker room?
Not at all. People have a certain perception of Michael Jordan, and I would just say the perception is not accurate. That’s all. Just from being there with him, I never got any type of resistance from him.
That’s a phrase that’s going to haunt him for the rest of his days, whenever the topic of athletes and activism comes up. He’s not quite what people think he is and that’s what my interactions with him for two years were as well. We’ve had great discussions about different things and he respects other opinions. I wish other people could see the Michael Jordan that I saw.
If Jordan were in the league today, would he be politically active?
It’s hard to say that because it’s a different time. Back then, there was kind of a lull with athletes and activists. People weren’t speaking out as much. But then you’ve seen a resurgence as of late. I think a lot of that has to do with police killings and the things that were visible on social media.
In your book, you encourage athletes to speak out. What was the dynamic with your teammates like? Did you ever receive any pushback?
I tell people all the time: If they would’ve heard the conversations that we had in the locker room, they would’ve been surprised. We had so many political conversations around a current event and everybody had opinions. From around the N.B.A., I would get nods of support. I’d be playing against a certain player and they’d be on the free throw line. They’d tell me, “Hey, I read what you said at that rally. That’s good stuff!” Some media people didn’t like it. It depended on what side of the fence they were on with whatever I was saying. I never got any pushback from management or coaches.
You write about an interesting conversation you had with the sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson comparing activism of athletes from decades ago to now. He suggests that athletes in the past engaged in “social protest,” while today the top athletes are more likely to engage in “social charity.” Do you agree?
We were going back and forth and came to some common ground. This is the thing. Everybody back in the 1960s was not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. There’s sometimes been a romanticizing.
There’s always a risk when you do speak out. It might be a different type of risk. Back in the sixties, there was a threat to your life on a whole different level. People love Muhammad Ali now. But back then? When he said he wasn’t going to go in the Army? He was hated. People think that Colin Kaepernick is hated right now. They can just imagine it times one hundred with Ali.
Do you feel, given the platform, that there is an obligation for athletes to be politically active?
I don’t feel that anybody should be forced to do something that they don’t want to do. I think it’s kind of unfair to tell somebody to take on a fight that isn’t their fight or they’re not passionate about it. I don’t think that’s necessarily fair but I do love when athletes speak out, of course, and I think they should get support.