On Sept. 21, during a playoff game, the entire Indiana Fever basketball team took a knee during the national anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and the mistreatment of people of color in the United States.
“It’s becoming scary for African-Americans,” said Marissa Coleman, a small forward on the Fever. “I have an older and younger brother…what happens if they get pulled over?”
Coleman said the team decided to kneel the night before the game, when players from the opposing team, the Phoenix Mercury, told them that some of their team would be protesting. In turn, the Fever decided to participate via group text.
“We like doing things as a unit,” said Coleman.
The Fever’s protest came on the heels of a summer during which several prominent athletes protested systemic racism. While these protests have been receiving national media attention, some question whether athletes should organize actions that go beyond raising public awareness of police brutality, and if so, how.
Coleman said a group of her teammates on the Fever plan to meet with local police officers and government officials to talk about how to build trust between the police and the black community.
Some athletes have already followed up symbolic gestures with concrete actions. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for example, recently pledged $1 million to organizations that take on racial inequity in the Bay Area.
Doug Baldwin, a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, directed his comments at a press conference to all 50 attorney generals after Terence Crutcher was killed in Tulsa, OK, and Keith Lamont Scott was killed in Charlotte, NC.
“I’m demanding that all 50 state attorney generals call for a review of their policies and training policies for police and law enforcement to eliminate militaristic cultures, while putting a higher emphasis on de-escalation tactics and crisis management measures,” he told media at a press conference on Sept. 22 at the Seahawks’ practice facility.
Later that day, Washington Attorney General Bob Fergus tweeted at Baldwin, inviting him to meet him to discuss these issues.
Other protesters have no intention of involving policy makers. Andy Borman, Executive Director of New York Rens AAU Basketball, spoke at The Undefeated’s panel on gun violence. Borman’s teams wear orange patches on their jerseys, a practice they started last year after four of their players were involved in shootings. Although the patches are meant to promote player safety and awareness about gun violence, Borman said the protest is apolitical.
“We’re not trying to challenge the second amendment, we’re not trying to rewrite laws,” he said.
“All we’re trying to do is say, ‘Keep our kids safe.’”
Over 350 teams now wear orange patches on their jerseys. Jim Fox, Executive Director of Island Garden AAU Basketball, adopted them for his team. A former probation officer, Coach Fox said he only uses the orange patches because they are not a political statement.
“This is about bringing attention to so many people that have been needlessly killed or maimed because of firearms,” he said.
The athletes protesting today are following a historical precedent. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, track and field athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith threatened to boycott the games if specific demands — hiring more black assistant coaches, removing South Africa and Rhodesia from the games, firing IOC President Avery Brundage and returning Muhammad Ali’s boxing title — weren’t met, then raised their fists in protest while accepting their medals. In a recent interview, Carlos said the plan materialized through an organized effort among his teammates.
“We researched and studied what we were into,” he said, adding that although athletes have effectively raised awareness this year, they have no clear agenda for further action.
WNBA player Layshia Clarendon said that although some recent protests have been spontaneous, others have been organized. Clarendon, a point guard on the Atlanta Dream, said the WNBA uses a group text to plan league-wide actions. Following the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five police officers in Dallas, players from several teams came together and decided to wear #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 T-shirts during warm-ups.
Although the Dream ultimately did not participate, Clarendon said representatives from all 12 teams took part in the discussions beforehand. Clarendon said she is an activist and uses Twitter to speak on issues of systemic racism and police brutality, as well as LGBT issues and suicide prevention.
“I have 5,000 followers, so I have a platform,” she said.
She added that the league is constantly discussing ways to make a difference. On Sept. 26, national voter registration day, Clarendon joined other WNBA players, as well as athletes across several leagues, to launch a campaign called “Athletes For Impact.” The group is non-partisan and aims to connect athletes with young voters in order to educate them on political issues and encourage them to vote.
“We can’t just wear a T-shirt,” Clarendon said. “That only goes so far.”