CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers’ visit to the White House in Washington D.C. on Thursday was a celebration of the franchise’s first NBA championship, but it also was a chance to talk about issues bigger than basketball.
President Barack Obama welcomed the Cavaliers and praised them for their work on and off the court. He pointed out that during their visit they spoke with his cabinet members to discuss steps to improve relationships between the police and communities in Cleveland and across the country.
“It’s really important work,” said Obama. “It’s one . . . just one of a number of recent efforts we’ve been proud to partner with the NBA during my time as president.”
The president added that the team’s work is part of a league-wide effort to bridge divides and defuse tensions following the cases social injustice and gun violence.
Athletes across the country have been both condemned and praised for their involvement in social justice issues. And now that Donald Trump has been elected as Obama’s successor, the question for athletes and their social involvement now is, “What’s next?”
The decision by athletes to speak out has been tricky and complicated. Some have faced backlash for protesting against police shootings; others have been angrily told they are not saying enough.
Earlier this year, the Cavs’ LeBron James came under fire from Samaria Rice, mother of then-12-year-old Tamir, for his lack of support for her son, who was fatally shot by police in Cleveland in November 2014.
James responded that he was unfamiliar with the issue, but then made one of his biggest statements this summer. In July, James joined NBA All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade to rally athletes during the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. The all-stars spoke about using their influence to bring change, and concerns with gun violence and racial profiling.
The group drew comparisons to another historic sports moment, the Muhammad Ali Summit in Cleveland in 1961, which aimed to support the boxing legend’s decision to not enlist into the military during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.
“LeBron has been his own man, and I like what he stands for not just with basketball,” former NBA All-Star and Cleveland native Charles Oakley said. “They’re trying to put the pressure on him, but I think we need the leaders of corporations and major business to stand up besides the athletes.”
Last year, NBA players demonstrated by wearing T-shirts, making statements on social media and working with cities and organizations.
Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks joined protesters in his hometown of Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.
“I want to create a platform that gets them talking and gets people to hear what they have to say,” Anthony told Fox 5 in D.C. “That’s the biggest disconnect right now.”
Athletes continue movement
This summer, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick continued the conversation after sitting during the playing of the national anthem. NBA players were questioned before the start of the season if they would respond considering its percentage of black athletes.
TNT analyst and NBA All-Star Grant Hill said he believes athletes have used their platforms effectively.
“I think even outside of what Kaepernick has started, this generation of NBA players have used their platforms and have spoken out,” Hill said. “I think social media really empowers athletes. Obviously you do something like a Kaepernick on that stage with players locking arms, wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts and warmups, but maybe even more so than my generation this current generation has really used their profile to social injustices.”
American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio policy director Mike Brickner added that while athletes have been key to continuing the discussion of social injustices, there has been some resistance.
Players from the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx were criticized and faced wage punishment after wearing matching T-Shirts stating “Change Starts With Us.” Then in September, Kaepernick was accused of disrespecting American service members and their families by his actions.
President-elect Donald Trump said during the campaign that Kaepernick should maybe “find a country that works better for him” and that the quarterback is doing a “terrible thing.”
“Race is still a problem in America and I know people want to say that he [Colin Kaepernick] is disrespecting the military and people in uniform, but that has nothing to do with it,” stated TNT analyst and former NBA All-Star Reggie Miller. “I think what he is trying to highlight is what is going on in America, on our streets and until we face this–by talking about it, what our differences are, how we can heal, and how we can work together to get along–we’re going to continue to have these problems on America’s streets.”
Shortly before the start of the NBA season, sports figures, activists and protesters picked up a significant win from the federal government.
In October, the United States Department of Justice announced it would begin to track the use of police force. Many see the change as a significant step toward addressing discriminatory police brutality cases and the often viral killings of black people by officers. Experts also believe the change comes as a result of years of demonstrators filling the streets of cities across the country and athletes using their positions to speak out for change.
“When you have someone that is high-profile who comes out and says ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘We want a police department that we trust and can work with’, that is incredibly powerful because it makes it easier for people to step out about that issue,” Brickner said. “It also helps to broaden that message so that individuals who may not be keyed into the issue are more aware of it, and it also helps to I think potentially win more support out in the public.”
Brickner said that while the Department of Justice’s action is a step toward change, he hopes that the DOJ will mandate police departments participate in the program.
“Some of the things we’re concerned about is that most of the reporting is still voluntary for many of the police departments,” Brickner said. “We want this to be required for all of these law enforcement agencies to report this [information], and we want to have strong safeguards and penalties in place to make sure that if a law enforcement agency doesn’t report the information that there are consequences of some kind.”
What people are saying
Outside of the DOJ, analysts and former basketball players said the NBA has a role in making a difference for the country.
In the 1960s, NBA All-Star Jim Chones participated in marches towards a unitary housing market eventually leading to the Fair Housing Act. Chones suggested that athletes should protest with care.
“Emotion is a big part of activism, but it also has to be strategic and has to make sense,” Chones said. “Just because you think one way doesn’t necessarily mean everybody has to agree. That’s the freedom of living in this country. There’s a lot of people that disagree with that and they have the right, but you also have that right to protest or to be active if you are comfortable with it.”
Pro basketball Hall of Famer McHale added, “You don’t need another 1,000 people yelling there is a fire. I think there is definitely a fire, but how are you going to put it out? That’s where they league and the players have got to start directing their energy towards helping these communities heal, feel safer, feel comfortable with law enforcement and all those things.”
Meanwhile, on the opening night of the NBA season, Commissioner Adam Silver spoke on ESPN’s Mike & Mike show about the league’s stance with social-justice issues. Along with the help of the players association, Silver said the NBA, owners and players are working together.
“The notion was that there is a place of course for symbolic gestures to get attention for issues, but now attention has been brought to these issues, so what can we–the league and its players–do to truly make a difference,” Silver said. “I said it before and to our players, in a league that employs literally some of the most prominent African-Americans in the world, I believe that roughly 75 percent are African-American, there may be no organization better situated in the United States to make a difference than the NBA and its players.”
Bridging the divide between communities and law enforcement departments could be more important than ever with tensions high following the election Trump.
As President Obama soon passes the reins of the country to Trump, it’s unclear what Trump’s future plans will be the next four years.
Answering what’s next may depend on how far athletes and anti-violence supporters are willing to go.
The recent interaction between Nebraska linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey and state governor Pete Ricketts in September is just one example of the uncertainty.
In reaction to police brutality and racial injustice, Rose-Ivey and two of his teammates knelt during the national anthem at Northwestern. The governor said the act was “disgraceful and disrespectful,” but after Rose-Ivey reached out to Ricketts to discuss the issue, they agreed to meet at the end of the football season.
Their resolution is one reason athletes may need to continue to bring awareness to anti-violence efforts through actions both on and off the playing field and to encourage law enforcement departments and public figures to be accountable and proactive in finding solutions.
Obama’s recent statements about President-elect Trump, who promised to restore “law and order” and end the “war on police,” is another example of people trying to build bridges.
“My No. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our President-elect is successful,” Obama said after his meeting with Trump last week. “I have been very encouraged by the, I think, interest in President-elect Trump’s wanting to work with my team around many of the issues that this great country faces. And I believe that it is important for all of us, regardless of party and regardless of political preferences, to now come together, work together, to deal with the many challenges that we face.”