On the Miami Heat, Trayvon Martin and the Intersection of Sports and Politics

Well now, I certainly didn’t see this coming.

As a response to the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Miami Heat have decided to publicly weigh in on the controversy, taking a photo of the entire team wearing hoodies. The photo was disseminated by LeBron James on Twitter with the inclusion of the hashtags, “#WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice.”

Dwyane Wade added to his teammates’ statement on Friday in the Orlando Sun Sentinel:

“I’m a father. It’s support of the tragic thing that has taken place. No matter what color, race, we’re all fathers. When you think about what that family’s going through, it hits you hard and it hurts your heart to think about it. Just anything you can do, obviously we can’t bring him back, but anything you can do to get behind and support is what we’re doing.”

This afternoon, New York’s illustrious power forward, Amar’e Stoudemire has added his own two cents to the proceedings. Though I really don’t think the garment he’s sporting can and should be considered a hoodie by any reasonable definition, this just went up via his twitter feed:

I got my Hoddie. Stand up! #RIPTrayvonMartin, #justicemustbehad. @Amareisreal [sic]

 In case you haven’t been closely following the story, the hoodie is significant because Mr. Martin was wearing one when he was shot. George Zimmerman, the guard who has yet to be charged, has claimed he acted in self-defense and some, including noted Fox News Pundit/Mustache Devotee/Vault Uncoverer Geraldo Rivera, have suggested that the clothing worn by Mr. Martin was indicative of a threatening individual, thus supporting Mr. Zimmerman’s assertion. Mr. Rivera stated:

“I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was…When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin, God bless him, an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way.”

Yep. Rivera just said Martin was guilty of the nefarious crime of wearing a hoodie while black.

As you may or may not know, I am particularly drawn to the moments in life when the sporting and “real” world intersect and today’s events are one of the rare moments when your humble correspondent is not required to perform some serious linguistic and sociological acrobatics to make the connection between the two apparent.

For the most part, NBA players have been hesitant, to say the least, to voice their opinions on controversial political issues. In general, they’ve either followed the example set by Michael Jordan in 1990, who, when asked to offer support for a Democrat challenging Jesse Helm’s seat in North Carolina, refused to endorse either candidate and famously said, “Republicans wear sneakers too,” or limited their participation to uncontroversial causes such as the charitable organization created by Dikembe Mutombo, the retired former all-star. who personally donated over 15 million dollars to build a hospital and has led the efforts to improving the health, education and quality of life for people in his homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But maybe, just maybe, the oh-so-divided and contentious political atmosphere we currently find ourselves swimming in is starting to have an effect on our favorite NBA stars to the point where they too, find they cannot remain silent.

If y’all recall, in 2010, the Phoenix Suns chose to wear their “Noche Latina” uniforms for the first game of the 2010 playoffs to express their disagreement with Arizona’s controversial (again, to say the least) immigration law. Steve Nash, who spearheaded the decision, stated, “”I think the law is very misguided. I think it is unfortunately to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties and I think it is very important for us to stand up for things we believe in,” Mr. Nash said of the bill. “I think the law obviously can target opportunities for racial profiling. Things we don’t want to see and don’t need to see in 2010.”

That said, I don’t think we’re in any way headed for a return to the era of John Carlos and Muhammed Ali. And alas,  Grisham pretty much nailed the reasons why squarely on the head in The Firm (and I’m paraphrasing) when he wrote, “What’s the answer to 90% of the questions in American life? Money.” I get that, really. It’s easy for me to take pot shots at Jordan for his seemingly self-serving refusal to do anything and everything in his power to boot a reactionary knuckle-dragger like Jesse Helms from office, but hey, I don’t have a multi-multi-milllion dollar brand identity to protect.

So when LeBron, Wade, STAT and others are willing to put their paychecks on the line, even though President Obama really carried a boatload of water for them by declaring. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” it’s kind of a big deal.

So why this issue? Why aren’t we hearing Jared Jeffries thoughts on the Keystone Pipeline or J.R. Smith’s views on Quantitative Easing? (I, for one, would love to hear Bernanke described via the prism/kaleidoscope that  is J.R.)

Well, and we’re definitely venturing into very sticky territory because, as you may not know, I’m a nice, Caucasian Jewish boy from the Upper West Side, so my ideas on the subject can and very possibly will be met with rebukes of, “Hey kid, try not to strain your delicate, lily-white, Ivy League hands on the keyboard trying to write about race in America.”

I get that. But here’s my take, for better or for worse.

The general perception of the NBA athlete, million dollar contract status notwithstanding, is not that markedly different from the prejudicial assumptions that Mr. Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin on the night of the shooting. Even though to basketball afficionados, they’re considered celebrities, if you ask a casual and/or non-fan, to describe an NBA player, the answer is sadly going to be something along the lines of a threatening African-American from the ghetto who if he wasn’t earning the aforementioned salary playing ball would be either incarcerated or engaged in some form of criminal activity.

It’s a prejudice that NBA players (and the league, with their stringent dress codes) fight against. At the same time, it’s an image that NBA players have, if not embraced, not altogether rejected because…well…there does exist the perception both within and outside the African American community that to completely shun the negative stereotype(s) makes them less authentically black. It’s a nasty little paradox, to put it mildly.

So when a LeBron or a Dwyane Wade or an Amar’e speak out on this issue, it doesn’t take a huge analytical leap to sense that they’re willing to put endorsement dollars at risk in this instance because they do still identify with Trayvon Martin, not only as a fellow African American, but because of the profoundly personal resonance that there for the grace of God go they and that the negative qualities erroneously ascribed to all African Americans, specifically young males, isn’t something they can ever rid themselves of, regardless of the size of their wallets.

I hope you don’t think in writing the proceeding statement I’m being critical of anyone for finding themselves trapped in this seemingly unsolvable problem. I’m not. Nor do I have the vaguest notion how we, as a nation, could begin to untie this race-based Gordian knot. I do think that speaking out is a good and noble thing and I applaud those who are risking far more than I ever could by doing so.

I just don’t for the life of me know what the next step might or could be.


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Robert Silverman

Hey, did you know that in addition to banging the keys here and occasionally for the NY Times and at ESPN, Robert is a playwright, an actor and a wand'ring mendicant/gadfly? He also once wrestled a bear...and lost.

9 thoughts to “On the Miami Heat, Trayvon Martin and the Intersection of Sports and Politics”

  1. Great piece, Bob. When I saw that picture, it made me really happy for the exact reasons you list. It really irks me the way the NBA consistently makes concessions to prejudices. The dress code, the super-strict fight rules, even the rule changes regarding what is a foul all seem at least partly a response to prejudices, to implications that we need to keep those crazy black people in line.

    The sports press, too, sort of falls in line 90% of the time — they exploit the “violence” of the players by recycling it as often as video of the collapse of the twin towers. Then when something forces them to write about it, they either dismiss it as a distraction or write sentimental garbage.

    You don’t here, so again, nice work.

  2. We still live in an essentially segregated country. Even in NYC the schools are essentially segregated. As the principal of one of the most integrated and diverse schools in the country, I could go on and on about the power of “real” integration. Even in the melting pot of NYC we aren’t ready for it. NYCDOE policies ensure that stereotypes are never challenged to the degree that it gets imprinted and actually makes a difference. And that’s here in NYC. The rest of the country? Long way to go. These things aren’t going away anytime soon.

  3. Well-put Rob,

    This notion of the hoodie, though, is interesting. It’s an interesting statement on where we are as a nation when a… ahem… journalist problematizes Martin’s decision to wear a hoodie but leaves everything else uninterrogated. He naturalizes Zimmerman’s assumptions about what he was seeing in a “what was he supposed to think?” way.

  4. Great piece, Robert. As usual.

    The ironic thing is that most – but not all – NBA players are the products of homes that were supportive of their talents, gave them enough structure to dedicate themselves to their passion to no end, and in turn, they avoided trouble or would be thought of as a troublemaker.

    They are, for the most part, good people, lucky in both genetics and circumstances, who made the right choices to get to where they are.

    They are, in general, Trayvon Martin, which is much different than the stereotype. That’s the reality, but not the reality that the perception gives them. And their concessions to the prejudices don’t apply to them but to that perception.

    Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in.

  5. “It’s a prejudice that NBA players (and the league, with their stringent dress codes) fight against. At the same time, it’s an image that NBA players have, if not embraced, not altogether rejected because…well…there does exist the perception both within and outside the African American community that to completely shun the negative stereotype(s) makes them less authentically black. It’s a nasty little paradox, to put it mildly.”

    This is, aside from institutional racism and actual physically painful stuff, among the lamest parts of being a person of color in America. Great post.

  6. I’m gonna prolly make some people mad on this one, but I got to get this off my chest….The Trayvon Martin is a definite tragedy, a young man lost his life but why does everything have to be so “race-driven”? I mean, Obama is making comments about it (If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon) and two of the biggest racist men who claim EVERYTHING is racially motivated but yet are “Reverends”, in America Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are calling it a hate crime for a racist man. Zimmerman, the man who shot Martin, has a black friend named Joe Oliver who is a former news reporter, defending him and saying he isn’t a racist as the guy has gone into hiding and is fearful for his life. Yet you have the New Black Panthers, a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization whose leaders have encouraged violence against whites, Jews and law enforcement officers, are calling for mobilization of 10,000 black men to capture Zimmerman and have placed a $10,000 bounty for his capture….no response on that from those “leaders”?
    What really bothers me here is, this…a young man (regardless of skin color) lost his life in a very bad decision making process and all we as a nation can think about is the shooter had different color skin, so it must be race-driven. How about this this one…have you heard any of those so-called leaders or any NBA players (who just want justice) comment on this case below have you? Think this was “race driven”???? Why no response from Obama, Sharpton, and Jackson on this one? How about justice for this one too….and not because he’s white, but because it’s the RIGHT thing to do.
    See article http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-03-04/news/31122324_1_white-boy-fire-tv-station

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