Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African-American male, died on July 17, 2014 as a result of being choked to death by New York Police Department (NYPD) officers Daniel Pantaleo and Justin Damico.
Garner was accused of illegally selling cigarettes without tax stamps, causing suspicion from nearby NYPD officers. Pantaleo and Damico proceeded to arrest Garner, with Pantaleo putting his arm around Garner’s neck and slamming him onto the concrete sidewalk, during which Garner repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” 11 times.
Garner was brought to the hospital after lying on the sidewalk for seven minutes and was pronounced dead approximately one hour later. While the nation was shocked by this event, a handful of professional athletes used their influence to create some good out of a tragedy.
The death of Garner instigated nationwide protests that came in the form of picketing, with celebrities publicly denouncing police brutality and demonstrations from professional sports athletes. On Dec. 8, 2014, basketball players Lebron James and Kyrie Irving wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts during their warm ups in protest of police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The crowd that night responded with cheers after the organizer told them of the athletes’ demonstrations.
About a week before James and Irving’s demonstration, five players of the St. Louis Rams raised their palms up in the air while walking onto the field, demonstrating the “Hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, a form of protest that Black Lives Matter activists have been seen using.
Some athletes have social media accounts that have more than 27 million followers, are sponsored by popular sports brands such as Adidas and Nike and involve themselves by participating in charities and organizations such as the NFL Foundation and NBA Cares.
Athletes powerful influence spreads across the nation and can change and educate parochial minds. When an athlete participates in a public demonstration of support for a political movement, they are lauded by their fans and gain new ones.
However, the athletes who are publicly supportive of activists’ movements only goes so far.
In late December 2015, Black Lives Matter activists called for Lebron James to sit out of games due to his lack of knowledge of the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American boy who was shot by Cleveland Police Department officer Timothy Loehmann.
Activists took to Twitter with the hashtag #NoJusticeNoLebron, demanding that James not play another game of professional basketball until justice was served for Tamir Rice.
James was met with backlash and disgust as he continued to play for the Cavaliers, and the New York Daily News described James’ apathy for the case as “appalling ignorance.”
Athletes are meant to be used as outlets for political movements to gain ground and accelerate towards accomplishing the movement’s end goal.
With the power of social media and television media, the demonstrations and actions that athletes partake in greatly impact and influence the fans that follow them.
Though some athletes today may be ignorant towards certain events or movements, many of them believe that the public should not attack them for detachment on the subject, and that rather, it should be an opportunity for activists to educate their fans and the general public.