In March 2012, the Miami Heat chose to put down their basketballs and put on their hoodies. As a team, they stood shoulder to shoulder and did what we are told athletes no longer do: made a conscious political stand for justice. The entire Heat roster-from stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to South Dakota's Mike Miller to the nearly forty-year-old reserve Juwan Howard-stood as one for seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, who had been recently killed by armed self-appointed "neighborhood watch leader" George Zimmerman. While Martin's killer had a nine-millimeter, the teenager had nothing but a pack of Skittles and a can of iced tea in his pocket. Trayvon was wearing a hoodie when he died, which some commentators believed made him "suspicious" and worthy of being pursued.
Of all the teams in the league, the Heat were the most shocking yet also appropriate to step up and be heard. It was shocking because the Heat are often painted as being a collection of prima donnas, as allegedly superficial as the town they call home. It was also appropriate because this was Trayvon's favorite team, and he was killed after leaving his house during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game, where he was watching James and Wade perform.
Given the outrage over Trayvon Martin's death, particularly in southern Florida, the Heat's powerful gesture hardly came out of the blue. What may be surprising for many fans is that "the King" himself, LeBron James, drove the effort. The photo was reportedly James's idea, and it was first posted to his personal Twitter account with the hashtag #WeWantJustice.
James later said, "It was very emotional, an emotional day for all of us. Taking that picture, we're happy that we're able to shed light on the situation that we feel is unjust." His teammate Wade commented to the Associated Press, "This situation hit home for me because last Christmas, all my oldest son wanted as a gift was hoodies. So when I heard about this a week ago, I thought of my sons. I'm speaking up because I feel it's necessary that we get past the stereotype of young, black men.
Since he was a teenager, "King James" has been pegged as potentially the greatest basketball player alive. He's a Fortune 500 company with legs and, thus far, has a very carefully crafted apolitical image. He is also someone who was raised by a single mother in Akron, Ohio, at times so poor that they were living in a car. He has everything, as well as memories of having nothing. Perhaps this is why he once said that his dream is to be "a global icon like Muhammad Ali." We've rarely seen evidence of his efforts to achieve this dream, but the hoodie photo could be a result of the Ali in him straining to be heard.
At the Heat's home game the following Friday night, James and several of his teammates took the floor with messages such as "RIP Trayvon Martin" and "We want justice" scrawled on their sneakers. Their actions inspired others across the NBA. Players spanning the gamut-from stars, like Steve Nash and Carmelo Anthony, to less famous jocks, such as Will Bynum and Brandon Knight-spoke out to raise awareness. Anthony, the high-profile star of the New York Knicks, changed his own Twitter picture to show him in a hoodie with "I am Trayvon Martin" superimposed over his body.
Detroit Pistons center Greg Monroe explained to the Detroit Free Press why so many players wanted to say something. "These kids come from the same neighborhoods we walked-or worse. And we see the same news everybody sees. When we turn on CNN, we don't have a special CNN channel. When we get pulled over, there's no special millionaire cops. We're just paid to play basketball."
To put it a different way, athletes aren't cartoon characters or robots. They are a part of this world. We are often told that today's athletes have no stake, as their forbears did, in fighting for change. At one time, athletes, particularly athletes of color and women athletes, had a self-interest in broader struggles against discrimination, but no longer. The argument goes that we are now somehow a "postracial, postpolitical" society. But while there are more people telling us that the world has changed, injustice, discrimination, and inequality of opportunity still rule the land.
In the real world, any change at all has been incremental and hard-won. In the sports world, the change has been more dramatic. Over the last thirty years, the athletic-industrial complex has transformed itself into a trillion-dollar, global entity. It's done this by making its product and its players as explicitly apolitical as possible. From Peyton Manning to Derek Jeter to Danica Patrick, the dominant message projected by athletes has been that it's far more important to be a brand than an individual, and that a modern jock should never sacrifice commercial concerns for political principle. This credo echoes Jesse Owens, the great Olympic star, who once said, "The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside."
ESPN, twenty-four-hour talk radio, and a seemingly bottomless appetite for distraction have exploded the size of our sports world-and its profits-into the stratosphere. In conjunction with this expansion, politics has also been actively discouraged by management and slammed by sports columnists. Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell toward the end of his life dubbed it rule number one of "the jockocracy": sports and politics just don't mix.
Yet over the last several years, the specter of politics has been haunting sports. Cosell's Golden Rule has been repeatedly and flagrantly breached. More athletes are speaking out across the political spectrum as a series of revolutions, occupations, and protests has defined the global landscape. The real world is gaining on the sports world and the sports world is starting to look over its shoulder. This book explores how and why this is taking place. As I hope to show, whether we see ourselves as sports fans or not, we all have a stake in understanding why the sports page is insufficient for understanding sports.
From Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down by Dave Zirin. Copyright 2013 by Dave Zirin. Excerpted by permission of The New Press.