Pro Athletes Show Support For Ferguson Protesters After a rough start, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are winning. ESPN.com's Howard Bryant tells NPR's Scott Simon that off the court, James has been outspoken on political issues.
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Pro Athletes Show Support For Ferguson Protesters

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Pro Athletes Show Support For Ferguson Protesters

Pro Athletes Show Support For Ferguson Protesters

Pro Athletes Show Support For Ferguson Protesters

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After a rough start, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are winning. ESPN.com's Howard Bryant tells NPR's Scott Simon that off the court, James has been outspoken on political issues.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now it's time for Sports, which can get caught up in real life, too.

A number of major sports stars, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Serena Williams and other major stars have spoken out and offered gestures of support for protesters against police conduct following events in Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Howard Bryant of espn.com has written about this online and for the magazine and joins us now.

Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Last Sunday the St. Louis Rams took the field with the hands up, don't shoot gesture. The St. Louis police union complained but the Rams coach Jeff Fisher said in so many words, it's a free country.

What does this gesture say about our times?

BRYANT: Well, it says that something very important is taking place and nobody is immune from it. Everyone's watching. The entire world is watching what's happening here in the United States on this issue. And it also speaks about the power of the police and where athletes fit in this story, considering that we have this contradiction that we live in in sports, where sports is supposed to be fantasyland but on the other hand, it's a staging ground for a lot of political action. And I think what's very interesting about this is that the players are recognizing now that this is an issue that is not theory for them. A lot of the players come from underserved neighborhoods, have very difficult relationships with the police, have family in these communities and I think they're recognizing that this is something that is not - it's touching them directly. They've got to deal with it and it's organic, it's coming from them. It's not that they've been shamed by a politician telling them that they should be involved, it's coming directly from them.

SIMON: Yeah, and what about the argument - and I think we've heard it in a few places this week - that athletes are there to play the game, cash the check and not speak out?

BRYANT: Well, it goes back to that contradiction that we're talking about. On the one hand, you have the feeling that there is no news on the sports page and that sports is the place where you get away from the world. And it's not anymore because when you go to a sporting event, the world is right in front of your face. There's military there, there's police there. In terms of the post-9/11, sports dynamic is filled with politics. And I think that the hypocrisy is very strong when it comes to players because on the one hand, we tell the players shut up and play. On the other hand, we criticize them for being too rich to care. We criticize them for not being involved and hiding behind the tinted glass of their Escalades. And now here's an issue that is touching them and that is in front of everybody. They're getting involved and people are still saying, hey, go back to the ballpark and just shoot buckets for us.

SIMON: Yeah, I mean a lot of these athletes grew up in the Ferguson, Missouris and Brooklyns of this country and the South Side of Chicago, in neighborhoods where this is a real live issue.

I want to ask you about LeBron James - biggest name in basketball, maybe the biggest name in sports. He has a history of activism at this point. He famously wore a hoodie on the court following Trayvon Martin's killing.

BRYANT: LeBron James is very impressive to me. I have to admit, I'm very proud of him in many ways because here is a kid who when he was 18 years old, signed a $90 million contract with Nike. He signed a $90 million shoe contract before he signed his first professional contract. That would suggest, if you follow the way athletes have acted over the past two or three decades, that he was not going to be that player who would get involved. Now you see what's happening both - not only Trayvon Martin, but also with Donald Sterling with the Clippers earlier this year, and now with this issue. He's part of the community. He's a citizen. They live here and I think that it also - the fact that it's coming from your best player says a lot and it empowers a lot of the younger players, or some of the players without as much clout, maybe to get them on board if he's willing to do that.

SIMON: Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN the magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you, Scott.

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