The NBA’s Recent History Of Racial Protest


When American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists to the air in support of human rights on the podium during the 1968 Olympics, it marked a watershed moment for black athletes using sport as a backdrop for racial protest. Since then, the number of athlete-activists—black, white, hispanic, whatever—using their positions to fight for the cause of civil rights has increased by many factors, especially among the ranks of the NBA. Following recent events, here’s how today’s basketball players (also known as some of the most influential men in the world) have demonstrated their refusal to sit by on the sidelines in order to score one for equality.


NBA players wear ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirts protesting the death of Eric Garner
Over the weekend, several NBA players were seen protesting a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict the NYPD officer allegedly responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. Among them, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Kyrie Irving took to the court during pre-game warmups wearing similar shirts with the message “I can’t breathe”—a reference to Garner’s final words. Brooklyn Nets guard Jarrett Jack was credited with supplying the black shirts.


Photo: Hector Amezcu/

The NBA reacts to the Ferguson riots and Mike Brown’s shooting
Protests—both violent and peaceful—flared up in November after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer allegedly responsible for the shooting death of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. For the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ben Mclemore, a native of nearby St. Louis, the shootings struck close to home. He demonstrated his support for Brown’s family by taking to the court with “R.I.P. Mike Brown” written on his shoes. Other NBA players including LeBron James took to social media to similarly express their support for the families of the both Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin. The New York Knicks’ Kobe Bryant perhaps took the strongest stance, tweeting that “The system enables young black men to be killed behind the mask of law.”


Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Clippers wear T-shirts inside out to protest team owner’s racist comments
At the height of playoffs fever in April, members of the Los Angeles Clippers wore their warm-up shirts inside out in silent protest of the racist remarks allegedly made by the team’s owner, Donald Sterling, that leaked three days earlier. (The Miami Heat would do the same only a few days later in a show of solidarity). The demonstrations mounted public pressure on NBA commissioner Adam Silver to dole out swift justice. After a nearly unanimous vote of NBA franchise owners, the real estate tycoon was forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers franchise and was banned for life from the league. Sterling was also fined $2.5 million, the maximum penalty allowed by the NBA constitution.

Photo: LeBron James/Twitter

Miami Heat protest the death of Trayvon Martin
In March 2012, the Miami Heat organised a photograph of themselves wearing team hoodies in tribute to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth who was killed in Florida. Martin was allegedly shot by a neighbourhood watch volunteer while wearing a similar hooded sweatshirt. Dwyane Wade would tell the Associated Press that the move was designed to call attention to the racial stereotyping of young, black men. George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defence in the shooting, was eventually charged with second-degree murder amid national speculation that that the shooting was racially motivated. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in the summer of last year.


Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Phoenix Suns wear ‘Los Suns’ jerseys in protest of immigration laws

On Cinco de Mayo 2010, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver announced his team’s unanimous decision to wear the franchise’s “Los Suns” jerseys during a Western Conference semifinals game in honour of the team’s Latino fans. The move coincided with strict new immigration laws introduced by the state of Arizona that critics called racist, and point guard Steve Nash called “misguided” in an interview with Yahoo Sports. Arizona SB 1070 made it mandatory for state immigrants to have registration documents on them at all times, and encouraged law enforcement to check for them given reasonable suspicion—something critics said would give rise to racial profiling. In June 2012, many of the the law’s strictest provisions were scrapped by the U.S. Supreme Court for being unconstitutional.
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