December 23, 2014 by gregrabidoux2013
Let me explain.
In 2005 a popular country singing group at the time called “The Dixie Chicks” amped up their notoriety if not their album sales (actually, their sales plummeted) by making a startling confession in a foreign land. At their concert in the Bush Empire Auditorium in England they announced to their adoring audience that yes, they too, were ashamed of then President George W. Bush and the US invasion of Iraq.
The crowd cheered and the band led by singer Natalie Maines played on.
Little did they know they set off a firestorm of hatred, vitriol and a backlash that Snidely (as in Whiplash, close, right?) would have envied.
Back home in Nashville and across the South, former fans, egged on by local radio DJs and television hosts, chanted epitaphs and burned and destroyed Dixie Chicks CDs. Suddenly, an “on the rise” group was on a roller-coaster ride downhill with no end in sight.
America. Love it or Leave it. Or, in this case better yet, leave what you think unsaid. Or else.
Musicland USA, it would appear, loves God, Guns, the Duck Commander and military invasions. Roughly in that order. Freedom of speech is fine so long as it is the right kind of speech. And if they think you are wrong well, hell hath no fury like redneck fury.
A radio host at the time, Dr. Laura, demanded that the “chicks” and by implication, all entertainers, simply “shut-up and sing” and leave the protesting to those folks, I guess, with little or no marketable talent.
Which brings me to the recent less “noisy” form of protest and freedom of speech invoked by several high-profile NBA athletes. And a question now making the rounds, should current NBA players simply “shut-up and play?”
In the wake of the highly divisive and controversial death of one, Eric Garner, an African-American who died in a NYC police officer’s chokehold recently captured on video, no less than LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant have all taken to wearing warm-up t-shirts with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.”
Many, again led by Lebron James, have also taken to twitter to express remorse to the family of Mr. Garner and frustration at what they see as abuse by police to young men of color and the need for reform.
For the NBA it is both a matter of branding and marketing (as is everything with the NBA mega-bucks house that former Commissioner David Stern built) and of course, money.
The NBA has enforceable contracts with companies like Nike that guarantees players will wear Nike brand warm-ups prior to tip-off. Failure to do so or the decision to cover-up the Nike logo with a rival brand (as some have done) has, in the past, resulted in fines from the Commissioner’s office.
For now though, new commissioner and Stern protégé Adam Silver has taken the high road. No fines but a gentle rebuke. Save your social commentary for off the court.
Look, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt is not exactly the same as say declaring your allegiance with the 1960s militant group The Black Panthers or even engaging in peaceful civil disobedience in Mobile, Alabama. Kobe, Lebron and KD aren’t facing police attack dogs and high-pressure water hoses as they march for reform against the KKK and the local cops, both in their own way hell-bent on destroying the message if not the messenger.
And when LeBron tweets out his rage at what he sees as police brutality from the safe and cozy “confines” of his 8,200 square foot Miami palace it’s not exactly the same as writing a letter from the much smaller confines of your Alabama prison cell as Dr. King did so famously back in April of 1963.
And when Russell Westbrook of the OKC Thunder says in effect that all black men are Eric Garner, it also doesn’t rival the sheer logic and power of Muhammad Ali when he quipped that “I ain’t got no beef with the Vietcong, they ain’t done nothing to me” as he refused military service over his own Muslim religious beliefs.
But today’s high profile athletes have something that the great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King and the “greatest” ever, Muhammad Ali, never had at their disposal.
Absolutely, unprecedented commercial power, leverage and access to a global audience at their fingertips.
Worldwide retail sports empires worth billions literally quake at any and every public thought, move and word uttered or displayed by the likes of LeBron, Kobe, and KD. Endorsements mean millions, even billions, the wrong type of branding or behavior can send a companies stocks plummeting faster to the ground than a LeBron slam dunk.
If you add up the top 50 NBA players in terms of salary it is greater than the total GDP of over 75 nations on planet earth. The game invented in 1891 for exercise at a YMCA with a peach-basket is today an unrivaled money-making machine.
So, while you may not see LeBron or Kobe forming a human protest chain blocking the streets of LA anytime soon or engaging in serious civil disobedience (lest they tarnish their own “brand”) they could still literally change the world with much simpler, less overt means.
A simple call from them or their agent to the CEO of Nike or Adidas or Puma or Pepsi requesting (demanding) they do more, much more in the legislative arena to advance true reform could be equally, even much more powerful and lasting than donning a t-shirt before a game. Requesting to attend the next Board of Directors meeting of Pepsi or Coca-Cola (Gatorade, folks, Gatorade) to demand the Board direct its lobbying division to push for legislative reform at both the federal and state level is the type of sophisticated and nuanced power that frankly, Dr. King never had, probably couldn’t envision ever happening.
An African-American in the White House who is a fan of the NBA?
Dr. King would have appreciated the irony there if not the access to demand change.
Especially to athletes of color. In the 1960s star black NBA players like Wilt Chamberlin and Bill Russell weren’t able to drink from the same water fountains as their white teammates let alone stay in the same hotels or even eat at the same public restaurants.
Today they can speak directly to the President and command the attention of global, corporate giants. I wonder, do they truly get this truth of basic, political power?
Then, such access was unthinkable.
Today, maybe too obvious or even taken for granted to be properly exploited and leveraged.
The real question today may not be should NBA players just “shut-up and play.”
No, the real question is, Do today’s NBA players and for that matter all top athletes know just how much difference they can make in our world?
The better question?
Do they have the courage of their own convictions to even dare try?
Somewhere the Dixie Chicks are envious. But that doesn’t make them wrong.