Four years ago, former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught in a hornets nest after a secret conversation was tapped by his then girlfriend, V. Stiviano.
In the conversation, Sterling was recorded berating Stiviano over her choice to associate with Black people, including a direct reference to Magic Johnson. “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” Sterling said in the recording. He went on to say that Stiviano was allowed to sleep with Black people, but forbid her from bringing them to games and posting them on social media.
Shortly after, the Clippers team–who felt compelled to put on a united front–took to the court to stage a silent protest, wearing their warm-up shirts inside out moments before they took on the Golden State Warriors.
Some called for the team to be more vocal, while others argued that certain stipulations in their contracts and the by-laws of the players union forbid them from staging a more direct action.
The Sterling fiasco was also a watershed moment in the culture of sports–before the kneeling, before the age of Trump. At the time in what many believed was “post-racism, modern-day America,” the country was also divided over whether it was necessary to rejoice at Sterling firing or rethink the strategy.
The incident still gives many people pause. Some, most notably Jay-Z, felt Sterling’s removal from his post as a team owner forced other blatant racists into a hole, while others were happy that Sterling lost his position of power in a sports organization that has primarily Black players.
But a larger question still remains: Is the Black athlete obligated to be vocal in the face of adversity? With all their money, which breeds power and influence, what is the requirement–to speak up or remain silent?
In the past when Black athletes have made definitive statements, they are oftentimes stripped of the very thing that drives them (see Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick).
This week LeBron James, Serena Williams and Malcolm Jenkins all used their podiums to make it plain that the role of the athlete is to wholly invest in themselves, their community and to challenge the outdated systems of inequality that weigh down the nation. They also showed that Black athletes do not have to put up with the following: microagressions, blatant racism, and the need to create context that fails to exist.
Their actions at three different press conferences showed that sometimes not dignifying ignorance with a response is the best response there is.
1. Lebron James at the post conference after the Cavs’ Game 1 Finals loss against the Golden State Warriors.
While many labeled James’ abrupt end to his post-game 1 press conference as petty, it was apparent (if you watched the whole interview) that James was repeatedly forced to account for teammate J.R. Smith‘s terrible blunder during the final seconds of overtime–which more than likely cost the Cavs the game.
The reporter, ESPN’s Mark Schwartz, kept inquiring about whether or not LeBron was capable of explaining Smith’s mindset during the play. As James became more noticeably annoyed, he decided to sit his mic on the table and leave the presser. “Be better tomorrow,” James says as he exists the press room.
James, a juggernaut in the game of basketball, who will no doubt be ranked as one of the greatest players of all time, put on a genuine display of self-care. Instead of continuing to engage with someone who demands answers to questions you don’t have the answers to, chuck the deuce into the cool breeze.
2. Serena Williams at the French Open Day 3 Press Conference.
Serena Williams has faced so much adversity in the world of tennis–a sport that has not adjusted well to seeing two Black women from Compton, California, dominate the sport over the last 20 years. During a post-match press conference after the French Open on Tuesday, Bill Simons editor of Inside Tennis Magazine, said he was interested in asking Williams a question that had been on his mind for the past 14 years.
“After the 2004 Wimbledon match with Maria, I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump on his LA golf course, and he said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly alluring and then he came up with his incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her supermodel good looks. My question is: have you ever been intimidated by anyone on a tennis court, and what are your thoughts about that occurrence?”
Simons’ question, loaded with undercurrents of sexism, misogyny and racism, tried to redact Williams to just her body, a game play that even Sharapova herself has indulged in. As we know, America’s obsession with the Black body, the Black female body in particular, is rooted in slavery and outdated stereotypes of the Black woman’s hyper-sexualized nature.
“I honestly don’t have any thoughts about that,” she said. “I can’t say I have been intimidated by anyone. That’s all. That’s it,” Williams responded.
3. Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins silent protest after an organized team activity on June 6.
After Trump disinvited an uninterested Eagles team to the White House on Monday, replacing their Super Bowl celebration with with a “patriotic” event, the media was watering at the mouth on the subject. Just a week before, NFL owners publicly announced that players would be required to stand during the National Anthem and would face hefty fines if they decided to protest. Players who did not want to stand during the song would be allowed to stay in the locker room off the field, until the anthem was over.
On Wednesday, Jenkins was bombarded by a bevy of reporters in the Eagles locker room, chomping at the bait for a comment. The New Jersey native, who has been vocal and impactful regarding the injustices of communities of color, decided it was time for some action. “More than 60% of people in prison are people of color,” read a sign Jenkins held up to reporters. More signs followed, pointing out the history of disenfranchisement, policing and policy mostly directed towards Black men.
“Are you not going to say anything today or you’re just going to use these posters?” one reporter asked. It was clear the press pool was more interested in asking questions about Trump. “You aren’t listening,” Jenkins’ next sign read. Jenkins in turn was able to frame the conversation away from the National Anthem and onto what was really important–the never ending arch of racial injustice in America.
If athletes are required to just shut up and dribble, backhand or throw, James, Williams and Jenkins are showing the world that Black athletes will not, and can not, do just that.