LOS ANGELES — Even though Carmelo Anthony and Tamika Catchings wore their Team USA attire Monday, they weren’t speaking on behalf of USA Basketball. Maybe, just maybe, they were because of USA Basketball, because of the international travel and exposure to different cultures and overall enlightenment that’s a byproduct in their participation in the past three Summer Olympics stretching back to 2004. The sum total of all of their voyages, physical and personal, had brought them to this room at the Challenger Boys Girls Club in Los Angeles, addressing the media following a youth-police interactive session designed to bridge the gap between people of color and law enforcement.
Melo praises Jordan for addressing racial unrest
Speaking Monday following a meeting with community leaders in Los Angeles, Carmelo Anthony praised Michael Jordan for his statement on the country’s growing racial and social unrest.
WNBA players, Melo upset over league’s fines
The WNBA has fined the Fever, Liberty and Mercury and their players for wearing black warm-up shirts in the wake of recent shootings by and against police officers — a move that irked players.
We’re often too quick to conflate prominence with experience. We think that just because someone is famous they are qualified or even obligated to speak out on societal issues, when the reality is speeches are better left to those who actually have something to say. Anthony and Catchings don’t profess to have all of the solutions. What they know — what we can tell about them — is that they’re equipped to take on the problems.
“Being an athlete you have a choice: you can either stay in the bubble that we’re in or you can get more engaged,” Catchings said later. “Being knowledgeable, being informed about everything that’s going on…I do feel like because we travel so much, we are exposed to a lot. I think that does kind of play into being able to speak out on different issues.”
For Anthony, there is no trace the steps of his journey, no indication of where he learned what, or when. He can’t even pinpoint what pressed him into action in the early hours of July 8, when he awoke from a fitful sleep and began composing an Instagram post. All he knows is that after the darkest side of America took the lives of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and five Dallas police officers, “It was too much.”
So Anthony posted a picture of the famous athletes’ summit featuring Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and let his thoughts flow.
“I just started typing,” Anthony said.
He enlisted his fellow athletes to call for systemic changes, to apply pressure to politicians, to make demands. They were just words on a screen. But typing is an action. Self-expression is an action. We know this because the laws of physics saw actions bring about reactions, and look at the ripple effects since Anthony’s Instagram post hit.
Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James led off the ESPY broadcast with another call to action. WNBA players wore protest warmup shirts, used their postgame interviews to address only Black Lives Matter-related topics, then held firm and forced the league to rescind its fines for their violations of uniform policies.
Monday provided the most tangible progress yet, with about 200 youths meeting with police officers, community leaders and Olympic team members to air out thoughts from both sides of the law enforcement divide that has gone from tense to deadly lately.
“A couple of things came out of it that were simple, but profound,” said Deputy Chief William Scott, a commanding officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau.
He mentioned the girl who said it would help if police officers admitted their mistakes when they made them. (There can be so little police accountability in the wake of tragic incidents, starting with a reluctance to even release the names of the officers involved).
“One of our officers said, ‘You know, you’re right,'” Scott said. “The culture of law enforcement, sometimes we don’t own up to what we’re doing. And he pledged in public that ‘I promise you, that’s something I can do.’ It’s those types of things that are very powerful.”
An African-American officer described the tension he feels when he is off-duty in plain clothes and is pulled over by white police officers.
“That tension is not just felt from community to police officer,” said Calvin Lyons, the President and CEO of the area Boys Girls Clubs. “It can be from police officer to police officer when race and ethnicity are involved.”
Finding commonalities and minimizing differences are the first steps that can be taken. If one kid has a better perspective on what police officers are thinking during a stop and if one officer has a handle on interacting with people of color, the day was a success. Catchings, of the Indiana Fever, said she can’t wait to collaborate with the Indiana Pacers‘ Paul George to hold a similar event back in Indianapolis.
A few athletes can’t undo racism or eradicate fear and hate. Through words and actions they can make a difference, however slight.
“We’re just going to keep it going,” Anthony said. “We’re going to keep the conversations going. But for me to just see it, when you’re in it, you really don’t understand or feel the impact that you’re creating or that you have. It’s not until you kind of sit back and unwind and think about everything and put everything into perspective.”
It’s not time to sit back yet. We can pause for just a moment, however, and acknowledge the place this generation of athletes has reached…and let’s make sure to salute the female athletes who are speaking out from empathy, not their own fear. Lyons, the Boys Girls Club CEO, noticed a slight gender-based difference in the comments during the sessions.
“The young ladies were speaking about: our brothers, our uncles, our fathers,” Lyons said. “The young men were speaking about themselves. How do I react? And The young ladies seemed to have a fear for losing someone close to them.”
The fear was enough to spark action from the WNBA players. The Minnesota Lynx started it, with shirts that referenced Sterling, Castile and the Dallas officers, along with a #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
“Wearing the shirts, it was more of: hey, we want to use our voice, because we want to make a difference,” Catchings said. “When you have 144 WNBA athletes and all 144 players supported what we did. Every single team supported it. And I think when you look at that, being able to use our voice… Of course we were going to get fined at first, and nobody cared. We wanted to stand up for what we believed in. When you look at the power of African-American women, and being able to step up and join causes and support our brothers, that’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter what race you are, when you can come together for a cause and make a movement and make sure that united, we can make a change.”
Sue Bird isn’t African-American, but she joined all of her Seattle Storm teammates in wearing black shirts for a photo that she and her teammates sent out on Twitter. They used a Martin Luther King quote — “There comes a time when silence is betrayal” — tagged the @WNBA Twitter account and used the hashtags #WeWillNOTBeSilenced and #BlackLivesMatter.
The WNBA stood down, the fines were rescinded and the side controversy was over.
“It’s good that now the focus can be on what’s really important,” Bird said.
The WNBA players are uniquely qualified to advance the argument, even if it’s a case of positives springing from negatives.
“A lot of us have played throughout the world,” Bird said, reflecting a common occurrence since WNBA salaries don’t allow for a luxurious offseason. “We’re college grads, we’ve played throughout the world, we’ve done all these things and with that we have a sense, I think, about us. And maybe some of that does come from having to fight for respect.”
Anthony hasn’t had to fight many of those battles. Yet he’s enlisted in this one, at the forefront of a national crisis.
“For me personally, I’m going to continue with these small groups,” Anthony said. “I think a lot of things come out when you put people into small groups and talk about it.”
He’s bringing it home. Chuck D has said the difference between Public Enemy’s first album, “Yo! Bum Rush The Show” and their classic second album “It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back” was the time the group spent touring the world for the first album. They gained a global perspective that improved their art.
We saw improved versions of Carmelo Anthony and Tamika Catchings on Monday, two athletes who have been enriched by every opportunity afforded them, two Olympians with one more Games in which to compete. One more Olympic trip to come, with the possibility of even more benefits.