Why “I Can’t Breathe” Matters

LeBron and other athletes take up the activism the predecessors declined.

Dec 8, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an " I Can't Breathe" t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center.  Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 8, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) wears an ” I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt during warm ups prior to the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

There was once a time in sports where it was cool to be an anti-hero. Charles Barkley ran a money-making campaign to prove he was not a role model. Michael Jordan, the best to ever do it, never made it his business to prove that he cared about the community either, despite how the hood’s love of Jordans has kept his money long in the years after basketball.

“Republicans buy shoes, too,” he once said. (Or possibly didn’t. Either way, Jordan was famous for his non-political stances during his playing career.)

The 1980s and early 90s, the years of modern excess, were years where anyone could say anything what they wanted, because everyone seemingly had everything they wanted. It was easy not to care, especially if you were one of the world’s biggest athletes.

But something’s changed in a major way. There’s something very special happening in sports right now. People care.

As #BlackLivesMatter protests rage across the country, pro and college players are wearing a simple shirt in solidarity with the movement. The shirt says, “I Can’t Breathe” — othe last words of Eric Garner, who was killed in an illegal chokehold by NYPD. Derrick Rose is wearing it. The Nets are all wearing it. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. LeBron James. And in collegiate sports, the men’s Georgetown Hoyas team and the women’s Notre Dame basketball teams.

Reggie Bush has also etched Garner’s last words on his warmup uniform. The St. Louis Rams offered their own nod to the movement, with what’s become known as a “hands up, don’t shoot” pose as they entered the field.

What separates these athletes from their predecessors is a generation. And a mindset.

These modern athlete – particularly the modern black male athlete – has displayed a militancy and a activism on behalf of their communities in a way that mirrors many other famed black athletes known for their roles in advancing black causes in public spheres: Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, even Jackie Robinson.

Black athletes, particularly young black men, are among the most visible black men in our country. This visibility affords them an incredible platform and arguably, a distinct responsibility, one that is completely optional for them to take on. After all, endorsement deals and signing bonuses would make it easy for anyone to distance themselves from controversy. So why don’t they?

Because racism is so pervasive that neither endorsement deals, nor could signing bonuses, nor record-setting feats of athleticism prevent any one of these men from being a victim of racism.

Ask Muhammad Ali. Or Joe Louis. Or Jackie Robinson.

So it is commendable and admirable, to see these athletes utilize their platform in a way that furthers conversation and makes people uncomfortable. People need to be uncomfortable.

And to be certain, the sight of these young men and women in these T-shirts makes people uncomfortable. It enrages many people. It may even inspire ire from some of you.

Because sports is supposed to be about meritocracy and “fairness” and winners and losers. But it is also a place for heroes. Human ones.

There’s no denying the impact that these players can have on the young people who idolize them. Each time LeBron or Kobe or any other Titan of Sport dons that shirt, a child will ask what it means. A kid is going to need an explanation about why NYPD is given indiscriminate power.

The problem with Jordan is that he worried too much about cutting out potential profit, not realizing he put himself up for sale in the process. Barkley, who now struggles to make himself an elder statesman of black respectability politics in his retirement years, also missed a crucial opportunity. Young athletes are realizing that the game eventually ends, and however important it’s made them, it’s what happens off the court that matters most of all.

Follow Maya K. Francis on Twitter.