ESPN(LOS ANGELES) — The era of “commerce over conscience” still appears to be slowly waning in U.S. sports, after NBA star LeBron James and others took the stage at ESPN’s ESPY Awards to make a powerful appeal for an end to violence in the aftermath of deadly police-involved shootings across the country.
“It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what are we doing to make change, and renounce all violence,” James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star, told the audience at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles Wednesday night. “We all have to do better.”
Dressed in black tuxedos, James and fellow basketball stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade mentioned the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando in May, as well as last week’s fatal shootings of two black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota and the five law enforcement officers who were shot and killed in Dallas.
The four urged their peers to promote social change, too, referencing several high-profile athletes in the past who were also outspoken activists.
“Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and countless others, they set a model for what athletes should stand for,” Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers said. “So we choose to follow in their footsteps.”
Their message was candid and forthright, more so than an Instagram post. But it was still carefully planned and crafted. The four men had approached ESPN about opening the awards show with this statement.
Carmelo, LeBron, Dwyane Wade & Chris Paul asked to open the ESPYs w/this speech on race/the police. Wanted to call other athletes to action.
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 14, 2016
Those Who’ve Come Before Them
There have been sporadic and less upfront protests against racism by athletes leading up to this moment. In 2012, James and Wade led the Miami Heat in wearing hoodies in protest of the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen who was fatally shot by a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer while wearing a hooded sweatshirt in Florida.
Some athletes have walked out onto the field with their hands in the air in “don’t shoot” poses. Some have worn T-shirts to games saying “Black Lives Matter” or “I can’t breathe,” referencing Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in a white police officer’s chokehold in New York. Others have posted their statements on social media.
Last weekend, Anthony used Instagram to call on his fellow athletes to “step up and take charge” in the wake of violence. The post has been “liked” more than 75,000 times.
“Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change,” Anthony wrote. “There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone.”
Accompanying Anthony’s striking statement was a photo of the “Ali Summit” in 1967, when top black athletes met with boxing legend Muhammad Ali to show their support for his controversial decision to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War. It was a time when sports stars were less calculated in their political stances and seven-figure endorsement contracts weren’t at stake.
Giving Honor to the ‘GOAT’
Ali became known for his work in and out of the boxing ring. The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who died last month, was an outspoken critic of war and racism, and he didn’t let his career compromise his views or his faith. Three years after converting to Islam, Ali refused to submit to the U.S. Army draft in 1967 to fight in Vietnam.
He was eventually arrested and convicted for evading the draft. But the boxer fought his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where his conviction was ultimately overturned. In the meantime, Ali was banned from boxing in the United States and was stripped of his world heavyweight title.
Ali didn’t mince words when explaining his opposition to the war in a statement he released in March 1967, shortly before reporting to the Military Entrance Processing Station in Houston, Texas, where he refused to step forward as officials called his name for induction.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali wrote.
This upfront activism seemed to fade from U.S. sports by the 1990s, when basketball legend Michael Jordan famously told a friend, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” after he declined to endorse Harvey Gantt, a black Democratic candidate seeking office in North Carolina.
The quote, when mentioned during an interview with NPR, bothered basketball Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a longtime friend of Ali who attended the “Ali Summit.”
“You can’t be afraid of losing shoe sales if you’re worried about your civil and human rights. He took commerce over conscience. It’s unfortunate for him, but he’s got to live with it,” Abdul-Jabbar told NPR last November.
Jordan has since joined the political conversation about gender. Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets, recently issued a statement on behalf of himself and his team opposing a law in North Carolina that says people must use public restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate, not the gender with which they identify.
‘We All Have to Do Better’
Abdul-Jabbar, 69. presented a tribute in memory of Ali at the 2016 ESPY Awards Wednesday night.
“Some people revel in it. Some people aren’t so comfortable with it. Muhammad Ali spoke fearlessly about injustice and he sacrificed tremendously for his principles,” Abdul-Jabbar said from the stage. “At this day in age, at this moment of history, that’s what I hope everyone remembers. We’re never going to see his likes again waking down the street. But I hope his death spurs his successors to remember what truly made him The Greatest.”
James and others also honored the late boxer and global humanitarian for driving social change, no matter the cost or controversy.
“Tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the GOAT [greatest of all time],” James told the audience. “But to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action to all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence and, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them.
“We all have to do better.”
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