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LeBron's 'I Can't Breathe' Shirt Offers Profile in Conformity, Not Courage

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LeBron James let his t-shirt do the talking last week when it came to his opinion on the death of Eric Garner. His 'punishment' from the Cavs was the world's most-awkward photo shoot with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge.AP Photo


LeBron James needed the police.

He was running late for the Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z concert last year in Miami. The traffic was "nuts" - his words, not mine - so he got himself a neat little escort past a long line of "little people" - my words, not his - so that he quickly could get to the show.

After all, Jay-Z said he would not start their tour finale in Miami without King James in the audience.

"They treat us so well! Needed it cause traffic was nuts!!" James tweeted.

Indeed they did. The officer in charge who gave LeBron his impromptu ride to the front of the line got some "internal counseling" for his troubles. The officer was working an off-duty security assignment and responded to a radio request to meet James's car several blocks from the stadium. In the video, you can hear James say: "Light police escort on the wrong side of the street. Headed to the big homie concert, JT. Holla!"

Well, LeBron isn't quite as big a fan of the police these days. He's joined several other pro athletes who have voiced their concern/outrage/anger/disappointment over the recent decisions not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Missouri, or the officer who allegedly applied a chokehold to Eric Garner in New York.

Both incidents have been reduced to quick narratives. "Hands up, don't shoot" in the case of Brown. "I can't breathe" in the case of Garner. Garner's final words were caught on a chilling video tape. As was Brown's strong-armed robbery of a grocery and liquor store shortly before his shooting. Multiple witnesses differ on what happened in the moments before Brown's shooting. No matter.

Those slogans have taken on symbolic meaning for the thousands of mostly peaceful and civil protesters in cities like Boston and New York these past couple of weeks.
In Boston, the number of arrests were minimal considering the size of the crowd. The police let much agitation go unchecked. The rights of the protesters often conflicted with the rights of those who wanted to get to work, or school, or home. For a few moments, at least, the rights of the protesters won out.

In America, that's probably a good thing - unless the ambulances and fire trucks can't get through.

James and several other NBA and NFL players have used the words "I Can't Breathe" on t-shirts to make sweeping statements.

James said he wore his "I Can't Breathe" shirt, which may have been made in a factory where the workers make all of $6 a day, to show his solidarity with Garner's family.

News flash: Who doesn't feel empathy for Garner's family?

"If it feels important to me, then I respond. If it doesn't, I don't," James said of his social activism, according to USA Today. "There's a lot of issues that I haven't talked about. For me, it's about knowledge. It's a gut feeling. If it hits home for you, if you feel it, then go about it. If not, then don't worry about it."

James' punishment from the NBA for speaking out? The world's most-awkward photo-op with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Reggie Bush wore a hand-written "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt before the Lions' game against Tampa Bay last week. He said was he protesting the decision not to indict in Brown's and Garner's death.

“Just something seemed flawed about the system and about the way that situation was handled,” Bush told ESPN. "I don’t know all the facts of what happened during when Michael Brown was killed, but I just know that a young man lost his life. [He] was shot how many times? Six? Ten times? Ten times. That’s a little excessive."

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins earned the scorn of the Cleveland police union with this shirt before Sunday's 30-0 loss to the Bengals.

Again, "justice" here remains a matter of perspective. Just ask the representative of the Cleveland police union.

"It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law," Cleveland police union head Jeff Follmer said Sunday. "They should stick to what they know best on the field. The Cleveland police protect and serve the Browns stadium, and the Browns organization owes us an apology."

That debate continued on Tuesday.

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy shot by police outside a rec center while holding what turned out to be a toy gun. Police said they were not warned by dispatchers that Rice's gun was likely a fake. John Crawford was shot inside an Ohio Walmart as he carried a BB gun that resembled an AR-15 while he talked on his cell phone. Police said Crawford refused repeated calls to put down his weapon.

Instead of apologizing for his shirt, Hawkins delivered a six-minute oratory on this thoughts about the police and the state of relations between law enforcement and the black community.

"My wearing a T-shirt wasn’t a stance against every police officer or every police department," he said. "My wearing the T-shirt was a stance against wrong individuals doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons to innocent people."

“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also justice should be the goal of every American. I think that’s what makes this country. To me, justice means the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology."

Strong stuff for sure. But is anyone really opposed to justice?

The definition of justice means different things to different people, just like the slogan on LeBron's t-shirt.

To some, "I Can't Breathe" means the police overreacted in the case of Garner and turned the petty crime of selling untaxed cigarettes into a capital offense.

Nanny state meets police state.

For some, it means the long-standing tensions between the police and members of the black community have shown no signs of lessening and police are not always the force for good we want them to be.

For some, it's a way to mourn the death of Garner, Brown and others who have died at the hands of the police whether or not their actions were justified.

For some, it's a way to open a dialogue to see how police can handle these situations without lethal force, whenever possible.

For some, it's a way to tell people the best way to avoid dealing with police officers in a hostile situation is to not break the law.

For others, it's all of the above.

That this issue has encroached into the sphere of sport is not entirely without precedent. The complete separation of professional and collegiate athletics from the real world has always been a myth.

President Roosevelt allowed the continuation of baseball as a morale-booster on the homefront in World War II.

The Olympics were often a metaphor for the Cold War, to wit the victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic hockey semifinal [or whatever it was called back then].

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier seven years before the "Brown vs. Board of Education" decision desegregated the nation's schools. His place in American history cannot be overstated. The integration of college football teams across the South was another harbinger for the end of segregation.

Muhammad Ali was sentenced to prison after refusing the Vietnam draft. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their "Black Power" salute during the 1968 Olympics. It too was interpreted a million different ways by a million different people.

Bill Russell has long fought against overt and subtle racism, facing both during his early playing days in Boston.

Since 9-11, military personnel and first-responders have been routinely honored before and during games. Flyovers were commonplace before the recent sequester. Thanking the troops is as commonplace as the national anthem.

Not all athletes who choose to speak out about social or political issues are given the same welcome by the media and fans as LeBron. If you doubt me, consider the reaction if an pro athlete opted to wear a t-shirt that said "I Stand With The Cops." Or if he or she donned a hat with the slogan that said "All Lives Matter" because their anti-abortion views.

James was lauded for his "social consciousness" by USA Today and others. Poor old Tim Thomas was not so lucky. Thomas took an unpopular, some said courageous, stand in deciding not to go to the White House with his Bruins teammates in 2012. How courageous probably depends on whether or not the IRS has gotten to his tax returns. He was both cheered and vilified. He didn't seem to care.

Thomas' beef was the size, scope and power of the federal government, and the threat it posed to individual freedom. It lacked the immediacy and emotion of Garner's video-taped struggle, or the rioting that set parts of Ferguson ablaze.

Thomas, however, believed it was a big deal. He had thousands of followers on Facebook who agreed.

It was a matter of "justice" that "hit home."

Thomas got little quarter for being politically and socially vocal. He was written off as whack job by many who disagreed with him. Bruins State Run Media excoriated the Bruins' goalie. Boston's early exit in the 2012 postseason was laid at Thomas' feet, along with the Polar Vortex, Ebola, and the Sony hack.

Some intrepid journalists sought to find similar criticism leveled against Theo Epstein for not joining the Red Sox at the White House in 2005 or '08. Theo was not a big fan of Bush 43. Searches on Google, Bing, and through the Boston Globe's archives failed to unearth anything of note.

Curt Schilling did the not-so-popular thing in Massachusetts and vocally endorsed and supported W's re-election in 2004. He paid a steep price on the pages of the local broadsheet. Schilling was never shy about his political and social beliefs during his playing days. He continues to offer his thoughts on the War on Terror, the protests in Ferguson, balancing his religious views with the theory of evolution, and many other topics on his Facebook page.

The activism of James and others has been hailed as a return to the good-old days of the "socially activist" athlete, namely the 1960s and early 1970s.

That analogy bricks like a Rondo 3-pointer.

Ali was not allowed to fight professionally for three-and-a-half years and lost his status as a world heavyweight champion due to his anti-war beliefs. He was also willing to go to jail for them, but didn't.

Carlos and Smith were booted from the Olympics and treated as lepers by the sports establishment of their time. Their families faced death threats at home. Time Magazine called their salute “public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd.”

Russell battled venom and ignorance during his career. His college team had to deal with segregation when it visited New Orleans and Oklahoma City.

Then there's Robinson, who played from 1947-56. He faced real threats of physical violence from fans and opposing players. He routinley absored racial pejoratives that get would players suspended and fined thousands today.

Putting on an "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt is easy, low-hanging fruit on the "social activism scale" for pro athletes in today's politically-correct climate. They risk zero loss of playing time, salary or fines by their respective leagues. No corporation in 2014 would dare drop LeBron or Derrick Rose for speaking out on this topic.

Good luck to the next guy who criticizes James and the others for bringing these inflammatory topics onto the gridiron or basketball court.

In a recent USA Today poll, those surveyed by a 3-1 margin believe the grand jury got it wrong in Garner's case. [In the same poll, a 50-37 plurality said the grand jury was correct in not charging former officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death.] Among blacks, two-thirds thought race played a role in the decision not to indict in both cases. By a wide margin, they also thought the grand juries erred in not bringing charges, according the poll - 80 percent in the Brown case and 90 percent in Garner's death.

The distrust is there. Perception is reality. There are good people trying to prevent future injustices, work with police to change the dynamic, and bridge the existing divide between certain communities and law enforcement. And there's Al Sharpton.

Reasonable debate on the issue of extreme policing often descends into ugly cries of one side being called "racist" for supporting the rule of law, or seeking the inclusion of evidence and credible testimony in the discussion. That's often countered with claims that critics of the grand jury's decision in either case are anarchists who hate the police. Because of that, real progress on this polarizing front may be further away than the next Red Sox World Series title.

Meanwhile, we'll try to let the games be games whenever possible.

Unless the real world gets in the way.

The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address
. Thanks always for reading.

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