The Courage of the Protest Athlete
Photo Credit: S & A

The Courage of the Protest Athlete

null“Won’t believe all the things you have to sacrifice just to get some peace of mind.” D’Angelo #blackmessiah

Recently, an NFL player sent a tweet, to me, after he read one of my articles. To be exact, this article: I was shocked and had to check myself. Honestly, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods Charles Barkley, even Oprah Winfrey (being honest, here), destroyed any faith that I had that athletes and entertainers would take a political stand on behalf of Black people. Richard Sherman began to shift my way of thinking. And, because of Sterling (and his fool ass), I’ve been paying attention to how current athletes respond to racism. I wonder if they realize how much power they have. The tweet, along with recent events, is opening my mind to today’s athletes.

I became especially interested when I saw that the NBA Players Association chose this woman as their Union leader: That decision let me know, these players want to flex their strength in a different way. They are claiming their power and it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

As Jamie Foxx remarked, during the recent press junket for Annie, “We don’t wanna come out here and make like we don’t know what’s going on.” Critical. Over the last decade (to be kind), actors and entertainers have given short shrift to what Black communities, Black folks, not as fortunate as them, have been suffering. An argument erupted on my facebook profile, recently, about whether or not the actions of actors and entertainers make a difference. The real difference, a legal scholar argued, comes with those that are fighting to change legislation. Of course, it’s easy to know where I stand. I believe all of it is important.

Recently, I have celebrated the quiet yet glaring protests from our athletes. Derrick Rose, LeBron James and players on the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well as, members of the Brooklyn Nets. (In the comment section, please let me know if there is an actor or entertainer you want to name.) I have been holding my breath, hoping that none of these men would apologize. And, they haven’t. They are standing tall. And, let me tell you, few thing more attractive than a courageous man. I applaud all of them.

It seems like a very simple thing. But, it’s so important. I stopped watching sports because of the reports of (many) players physically assaulting their mates. The reportage turned me off to who the other players were or who they could be. Sports began to feel like a club that was okay with violence against women. And, I do know, they have a long way to go. So, it was refreshing for me to see these men in protest. Not solely because they acknowledged the heartbreaking loss of life but because it let me know that there are compassionate, thoughtful men in these arenas. Yes, of course, we know there must be. But, we do not get to see this side of the athletes. We, rarely, get to hear their thoughts about anything other than sports or something frivolous.

We need to see more of that. I have been reading their thoughts on recent events. And, as a Feminist, it is opening my mind and heart. The other day, I became aware of Andrew Hawkins, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns. Recently, he wore a shirt that read: “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” on the front and “The Real Battle of Ohio” on the  back. A simple, clear and powerful statement in memory of this child and man who were murdered in Cleveland.

Mr. Hawkins didn’t kill anyone. He didn’t assault anyone. He simply wore a shirt. He was then asked to apologize. Nope, he did not. His statement was instructive. He broke down why it was difficult to wear the shirt: “I worked extremely hard to build and keep my reputation especially here in Ohio, and by most accounts I’ve done a solid job of decently building a good name. Before I made the decision to wear the T-shirt, I understood I was putting that reputation in jeopardy to some of those people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with my perspective. I understood there was going to be backlash, and that scared me, honestly. But deep down I felt like it was the right thing to do. If I was to run away from what I felt in my soul was the right thing to do, that would make me a coward, and I can’t live with that.”

This is the struggle for all Black folks. We get whatever piece of the pie we have and we are holding on, with clenched fists, to keep it. I get it. Many of us work hard because we are trying to make ourselves impenetrable to racism, to being murdered, to being seen as less than. We are concerned that we may alienate others, we know that it will take a psychic tidal wave to disrupt racism so why put ourselves on the chopping block. I heard him. And, in that, I heard the silence of so many entertainers and actors, etc. over the years. The difference, Hawkins decided to be courageous. It takes bravery and strength to take a stand, to speak up. You have to step onto the ledge without a safety net.

In the same way that Beverly Johnson spoke, eloquently, about her fear to come forward: "As I wrestled with the idea of telling my story of the day Bill Cosby drugged me with the intention of doing God knows what, the faces of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other brown and black men took residence in my mind. As if I needed to be reminded. The current plight of the black male was behind my silence…" All of this shit takes courage. Speaking out against the ills of society takes courage. I am heartened that these folks are articulating the totality of their fear as they bust through it.

And, the thing is, in order to get where they are, athletes and entertainers have to stand in and overcome scary spaces, repeatedly. They are no different from the rest of us. We are all in this, together. It takes just as much courage to put your career in jeopardy as it does to wake up to children whose mouths you can’t feed. This is the cost of living within a society that is, fundamentally, unequal.

Daily, we wrestle with difficult matters that have been thrust on our doorstep. We didn’t cause it. We didn’t ask for it. But, we have to put our livelihoods in jeopardy to confront it.

The protesters are emboldening all of us. They are taking the greatest risk. They are stepping out onto the ledge without fear (maybe even with fear). By taking a stand for our lives, they give us courage. Whether entertainers and athletes know it or not, the protesters are standing for them, too. For their right to speak. We are, slowly, realizing that we have each other’s backs. Protesters, athletes, entertainers, people from all walks of life. We know we are not stepping out on the ledge alone. That is the firepower of social media, we can turn on and see that we have back up.

And, yes, there are those who can’t access social media. Who are trying to eat, live, survive. Some who don’t give a shit about racism because they’re too busy suffering it. So, they may see a Lebron James, in a t-shirt, before they get wind of a protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge. How do we reach their lives in a way that is meaningful? There is much work to be done but it feels like we are back on the path. We cannot dismiss the power of the protest athlete. The visual of “I can’t breathe”, resonantes.

No one had more courage than Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, John, Eric, Tamir, Rekia, Jonathan, Mike Mike, no one has more courage than them. They accepted the worst fate. The fate of stepping into the streets of America in Black skin. The least we can do is stand for them. THE LEAST WE CAN DO. Stay courageous.

This year, I did not participate when Tambay Obenson asked contributors to Shadow and Act what our predictions are for 2014. My buddy, @CybelDP, called and asked me what I would have said. I said, “2014, will be the year that Black people, in the entertainment industry, come to understand that we need one another in order to change the game.” I have no prediction for 2015, yet, but, this time, I will share it with S &A when I do.

Let’s lead America to healthier spaces for Black children. To a healthier love for one another. To the end of fear. To courage unbound.

Now, pardon me, I’m going to listen to D’Angelo’s BLACK MESSIAH, one mo’ time, again!

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at Or visit

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