Carmelo Anthony spoke first. Then Chris Paul, then Dwyane Wade, then LeBron James. Four statements in less than four minutes, from four of the biggest stars in sports. Last night’s ESPYs opener wasn’t a comedy sketch, but a call for action—and a roll call of victims from Paul—delivered by a somber collection of black men in dark suits. They became stars because of their basketball abilities, but now they’ve become so much more than that.
You’d have to go all the way back to Muhammad Ali to find an athlete doing as much with his global platform as LeBron James has. He wasn’t the first NBA player to wear an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt after Eric Garner was killed, wasn’t the first to speak out after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died, but he did speak out after each of them, did wear the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, honored Trayvon Martin by wearing a hoodie with the rest of his Miami Heat teammates in 2012, did contact ESPN with the idea of putting what started as Anthony’s message onto a national stage. We’ve come a long way from “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
What’s happening today is the Civil Rights Movement of this generation and four of the NBA’s biggest stars are seizing the moment.
James may never surpass Michael Jordan as a basketball player, but he’s already shown the willingness to use his vast influence in ways Jordan never would when he was still playing. James has proven himself the deserving heir to the likes of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Ali, fighting for something more important than championships. James stands on the shoulders of those giants, and in doing so ensures their message reaches even farther.
But it was Anthony who set last night’s speech in motion. Russell, Brown, Ali, and Jabbar were the four iconic athletes in the picture the Knicks star shared on his Instagram account nearly a week ago as a call to arms for his fellow athletes. Many fans have been clamoring for our nation’s star players to speak up during times of unrest, but generally feel most are more worried about their bank accounts than issues plaguing our nation. The last couple years have changed that, though. The four icons mentioned above came together to stand behind Ali’s decision to not enter the draft for the Vietnam war during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.
For decades after the movement succeeded in gaining blacks the right to vote and to be almost treated as equals, most Black athletes chose to not to get involved in politics and instead chose to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Salaries skyrocketed across every major American sport and endorsements became holy grails to hold on to for dear life. This is why Anthony being the one to set this thing off was so surprising. Most of his career has been filled with criticism. Melo has always been the poster child for the selfish athlete who’s more worried about the dollar and his brand than the wins column.
What’s happening today is the Civil Rights Movement of this generation and four of the NBA’s biggest stars are seizing the moment. However, we must remember to be careful what we wish for. A few days ago, Charles Barkley, who has never minced words, stirred things up on the Dan LeBatard’s radio show by siding with the police’s point of view and got lambasted for his opinion, and perhaps rightfully so. But we must encourage our favorite athletes to use their influence and their platform to further the dialogue on these issues. Hopefully in a constructive manner. We will never agree on everything, so finding common ground is the only viable solution.
It’s entirely possible—probable, even—that James, Anthony, Wade, and Paul never team up in the NBA. Given their ages and salaries, it would take a lot of maneuvering as well as an extremely spendthrift owner to make that pipedream happen. One suspects they already realize this. And maybe it’s why they’ve decided to team up in a different way, one that uses their collective talents and influence in an entirely different way. They’ve played together for their country before, yes, but this is bigger than basketball.
This is also just a start. A call to activism is not activism itself, and if the Banana Boat Revolutionaries are to make a real impact it will have to be in more than just words, as eloquent as they were. They have to put their money where their mouth is. And the athletes of today have guys like Ali, Brown, Russell, and Jabbar to thank for their bank accounts. The OGs dedicated their lives to not only their respective sports but to the social issues that affected their generation. Wade mentioned the violence that plagues his hometown of Chicago, and now, as a member of the Bulls he has even more of a chance to make a difference and continue the work started by former Bulls center Joakim Noah, among others.
But for now, maybe they’re call to action is enough. Because in calling out the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, as Paul did, the four of them made it clear that they see themselves in those who have been murdered. If things had gone a little bit differently, this could have been them. Scratch that, Anthony, Paul, Wade and James want us to know that this could STILL be them. We should see it that way, too.