The last three decades in the sports world saw the rise of the commodity athlete, the Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods of the world who could sell sneakers, burgers, and apparel with ease – while staying squarely out of politics and other risky topics that could be bad for business.
But the recent string of high-profile deaths of unarmed black men – Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin – has drawn the attention of black pro athletes across the sports world eager to use their celebrity to speak up and join the conversation on racial injustice.
Is this the return of the "activist athlete?"
Consider the recent spate of statements made by athletes: Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, and St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Davin Joseph, wore shirts emblazoned with "I Can't Breathe," the rallying cry of many protesting a grand jury's decision to not indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has called the shirt "spectacular," and said he is looking for one, leading some to believe he may wear it before Monday evening's game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York.
A week after their much-talked about "Hands Up Don't Shoot," gesture during pre-grame introductions, a group of St. Louis Rams players made another political statement
Guard Davin Joseph wrote the words on the cleats he wore during Sunday's pre-game warmups before the Rams beat the Washington Redskins 24-0, reported the AP. Tight end Jared Cook had it written on his wrist tape. Receiver Kenny Britt had several names — including Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin — written on his blue and gold cleats. The names were of black men or teens whose deaths led to protests, the AP reported.
The athletes also took to Twitter to disseminate their message.
"Honestly, I've always been the quiet kid. I've always been the one who's reserved, to kind of sit back and not really get into politics and things like that," Bush, of the Detroit Lions, told the AP. "But I don't know why I just felt some kind of ... I guess the situation just touched me.
"It's kind of resonated with me," said Bush, whose mother was a police officer. "Not because I've been through a similar situation or because I've seen anybody go through it. I just really felt terrible about what was going on these past couple of weeks."
Amar'e Stoudemire, of the New York Knicks, also weighed in. "I'm pretty upset that I'm not protesting right now with the rest of the guys out there in New York," he told ESPN after a recent game before offering his thoughts on the Garner case.
"I think it's something that's – it's very alarming in our country as far as that's concerned. We have to be more conscientious of what the law enforcement's job is, and that's to protect and serve," he said. "Those two words are very strong when you think about that. Your first job is to protect and your second job is to serve. Obviously it's not happening that way."
These statements follow a much-publicized 2012 picture by Mr. James and his then-Miami Heat teammates, who donned black “hoodies” and posed with their heads bowed and their hands in their pockets. The team picture, which James tweeted with the hashtag “#WeWantJustice,” was a show of solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the black teenager fatally shot by white-Hispanic neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman in Florida while wearing a similar hooded sweatshirt.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, a jury ruled Zimmerman not guilty in 2013. And more recently, grand juries decided not to indict white police officers in the deaths of Garner and Brown, both unarmed black men. The decisions unleashed a firestorm among Americans, some of whom thought reinforced the notion of racial injustice and police brutality.
Why are more black pro athletes speaking out these days?
In part, social media has made it incredibly easy to reach a wide audience directly. That's why a number of athletes took to Twitter and Instagram after the Ferguson grand jury decision, including James, Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson, Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tennis superstar Serena Williams, and Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, who tweeted, “The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law.”
And some pro athletes, some of whom came from difficult backgrounds and rough neighborhoods, see themselves in Garner, Brown, and Martin. As President Obama famously said in 2013, "Trayvon Martin could have been me."
And of course, some black pro athletes recognize their unique position and their ability to influence fans.
University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long held up a handwritten sign that read, “Are we still ‘thugs’ when you pay to watch us play sports?” during a protest on the College Park campus. The sign was widely disseminated on social media with the popular Twitter hashtag “#blacklivesmatter.”
Athletes' decisions to speak up may also be a reaction against their recent predecessors, people like Jordan and Woods who made deliberate decisions to stay out of politics to protect their brand.
As the Washington Post reported, the 1990s were an era of "athletes as corporations and 'brands,' with salaries exploding, endorsement opportunities multiplying and awareness of how to groom their images for maximum marketability growing."
"This stance was most vividly seen when Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan reportedly explained his refusal to endorse a Democratic Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina by saying, 'Republicans buy shoes, too.'"
Jordan “was the alpha model for the new kind of athlete who never took controversial stands,” anthropologist Orin Starn told the Post, “and Tiger Woods followed in his footsteps.”
Of course, even today, it remains risky for athletes to wade into politically-charged topics.
“It’s extremely tough to take a stand one way or another [as an athlete]," Washington Redskins safety Ryan Clark told the Post. "In our position, it’s very easy to not have an opinion on anything — because if you don’t have an opinion on anything, you draw no scrutiny to yourself."
But for many of the athletes who have chosen to speak up about the shooting deaths of black men like Martin, Garner, and Brown, they are simply following in the footsteps of their early predecessors, the first activist athletes.
Athletes like boxer Muhammed Ali, who famously protested the Vietnam War and NBA star Bill Russell, who spoke out against racism.
And perhaps the most famous of them all, John Carlos, former football great and track-and-field bronze medal winner, who with his teammate, Tommie Smith. They each raised a single black-gloved fist in the air signaling "Black Power" on the medal stand during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics that became one of the decade's iconic images. It also resulted in each of them being suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village.
Earlier this month, Carlos praised the St. Louis Rams players who came onto the field making a "Hands Up Don't Shoot" gesture.
"How about those Rams?,” he said. “They may be under contract to play football, but greater than that, they have a right to care about humanity. They have the right to feel whether something is just or unjust. They are entitled to their opinions, most centrally that Michael Brown’s life should not have been taken. Asking them to just ‘shut up and play’ is like asking a human being to be paint on the wall."
He added: "I remember saying in 1968, you think I’m bad, just wait until this new generation comes out. I feel like that new generation is here at last.”