On Monday night outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, demonstrators responded to the failure of grand juries to indict the police officers involved in the shooting death of Michael Brown and the choking death of Eric Garner with chants of "Hands up! Don't shoot!" and "Eric Garner, Michael Brown! Shut it down! Shut it down!"
While I certainly support it, I think it's going to devolve into a fashion statement.Jonathan Zimmerman, professor at NYU
The game inside the center between the Brooklyn Nets and the Cleveland Cavaliers was not shut down. But during warm-ups several of the players, including LeBron James, wore t-shirts bearing the message "I Can't Breathe," which is what Eric Garner was saying before he died in a chokehold.
When James was asked about the t-shirt after the game, he spoke about the people Eric Garner had left behind.
"It's a message to the family," he said. "You know, I'm sorry for their loss. That's what it's about. Everybody else gets caught up in everything else besides the who is really feelin' it. And that's the family. ."
Pressed on the matter, James was careful to distance himself from violent protest.
"Violence is not the answer, and retaliation isn't the solution," he said. "As a society, we know we have to get better, but it's not gonna be done in one day."
Kobe Bryant of the Lakers and Derrick Rose of the Bulls are among the other especially prominent players who've worn the "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts. Reactions to those expressions of solidarity with Eric Garner and other black men or boys who've recently lost their lives at the hands of the police have varied. Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at New York University, recently opined that perhaps players should do more than change their warm-up attire.
"While I certainly support it, I think it's quickly going to devolve into a fashion statement. In fact, it already has," Zimmerman said. "And what the history suggests to me is that if we want their action to have real effect, they're going to have to engage in some sort of work stoppage."
Zimmerman references the 1965 AFL All-Star Game scheduled to be played in New Orleans. Black players arriving in the city couldn't get cabs and were denied entrance to restaurants and clubs. They packed up and left, and the league had to move the game to Houston. I asked Professor Zimmerman if he felt such an action was likely today.
"A cynic might say there's so much more money at stake, these guys aren't going to forsake it," he said. "But another way of looking at it is that one-eighty-second of your salary as an NBA player isn't that much, given that you're making millions anyway."
"I'm not sure that that would be an effective strategy," said Len Elmore, who played in the NBA from 1976 until 1984, and later earned a law degree. He's currently broadcasting college basketball games for CBS and ESPN. "It would probably destroy any good will that could be developed by speaking out about a particular problem."
Elmore is proud of the activism players were displaying this week and says it reminded him of the way Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood up for Muhammad Ali's conscientious objector status during the '60s. Though the events provoking the two groups of athletes were certainly different from one another, Len Elmore sees similarities in the impact the two groups of athletes have had.
"What it does, it really helps people understand what standing for justice is all about," he said. "I think for a period of time, for an era, we've kind of forgotten that. I think professional athletes, particularly, they've been maybe purposefully separated from reality for whatever reason. I think some of them haven't been educated enough in the struggle over the years to be able to articulately speak. But nevertheless, I think that the impact now on communities and particularly on young people will be evident."
Whether the phenomenon of the "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts and other protests will continue to spread remains to be seen. Likewise unclear is how significant the gestures of some of the most highly compensated athletes in the world will turn out to be for the people on the street who are so much more likely to find themselves in circumstances like the ones that ended in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, among others.
This segment aired on December 13, 2014.