By Aaron Leibowitz
David Allen is a junior at Georgetown who hails from Dallas, Texas. He is a guard on the men’s basketball team. He has played ten minutes this season and scored zero points. On Wednesday, he made history.
During warmups before the Hoyas’ home game against Kansas, Allen became the first white athlete at any level to show support for the national Black Lives Matter movement by sporting an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt.
The previous night, the Lakers’ Jeremy Lin, who is Asian-American, became the first non-black athlete to wear one. On Thursday, Kings rookie Nik Stauskas was the first white pro athlete on board. (Side note: Stauskas is Canadian.) On Saturday, Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team, including several white players, joined in. UC Berkeley women’s basketball had a similar plan in the works for Saturday night, though with a somewhat different design.
The Black Lives Matter movement is rippling across the sports world, and gradually, more white athletes are among those stepping up.
Many have dubbed this moment the political awakening of the 21st-century athlete, and while that may be unfair to all those who have taken political stands in the post-Muhammad Ali era, the sheer number of superstars speaking out is truly remarkable. In the NBA, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Kyrie Irving and Damien Lillard all wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. In the NFL, Reggie Bush, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Melvin Ingram, Brandion Ross and Chris Baker all took some form of action.
But what about the non-black athletes standing in solidarity? How significant is their presence? Could they be doing more? Could they be doing better?
That discussion ought to begin with the late Australian runner Peter Norman, who stood at the podium with John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as they raised their fists in an iconic Black Power salute.
Norman kept his arms at his sides while wearing a badge of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which Smith and Carlos had helped establish. He also made an active decision to stand alongside Smith and Carlos during their moment of protest, and he even recommended that they each wear one black glove, since Carlos had left his gloves behind at the Olympic Village. Norman experienced significant backlash upon returning home, and he was not sent to the 1972 Olympics despite running qualifying times.
What can today’s athletes learn from Norman? For starters: that solidarity matters. Smith and Carlos were the centerpieces of their protest, and they would go down as the two athletes who took a grave risk in the name of justice. But Norman’s presence also carried weight. It meant that Smith and Carlos were not alone. It meant that white people with a conscience could stand with black people, hear their cries and fight alongside them. With the whole world watching, Peter Norman stood on the right side of history.
David Allen, Jeremy Lin, Nik Stauskas and the non-black players at Notre Dame and Berkeley also deserve to be praised. They have shown support for their teammates during a tragic and critical national moment. They have demonstrated that the burden of this struggle must not be borne by black people alone.
Still, it’s worth making a gentle suggestion to those athletes who wish to show solidarity going forward. Instead of saying “I Can’t Breathe,” perhaps white athletes could instead say “Black Lives Matter”; or, as Dave Zirin suggested, “My Teammates’ Lives Matter.” It’s okay to acknowledge that this is an issue of race. The justice system only allows certain people to breathe; the way people protest can reflect that.
In a recent interview with Zirin and former NBA player Etan Thomas, Dr. John Carlos talked about the relative lack of white athletes speaking out (though this was prior to Saturday’s actions at Notre Dame and Berkeley) and about the sense of fear that can discourage them from doing so.
“I [don’t] see as many Peter Normans in the athletic realm,” Carlos said. “In the streets, yes, I see them all over the United States, white folks come out to support this cause and stand for justice and equality. Now, one individual [David Allen] has broken the gate … I’m sure there’s other individuals that feel the same way. But you have to take into account that there’s a fear factor. Many of these individuals have fear — fear of oppressors to step upon them or to make their lives very uncomfortable. But I think many individuals are saying right now, it’s greater than me being uncomfortable, because this is about society being comfortable.”
Just before Smith and Carlos took the podium in 1968, they told Norman about their plan. They asked him if he believed in human rights, and he said yes. They asked him if he believed in God, and he said yes. Norman then declared that he would stand with them.
At Norman’s funeral in 2006, Smith and Carlos were two of the pallbearers. “Not every young white individual would have the gumption, the nerve, the backbone, to stand there,” Carlos said that day. When he told Norman of their plan, Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. Instead?
“I saw love.”
Love — not some artificial sense of obligation — is what Carlos believes should continue to spur acts of athlete solidarity.
“I’m just gonna do what I do and they have to take it upon themselves,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to be pushing anything that they’re not comfortable about doing. I want you to be from within your heart, within your soul and your spirit, and with your ideas of justice and equality, for you to step out on your own, not for me to push you out there. I don’t want you just there in flesh. I want you there in spirit, as well.
“I want you to be feeling free about coming in to support this cause because it’s a right cause. Because it’s a just cause.”