Pro Athletes Must Stop Abusing the Platform

To wear a professional uniform is a gift, and with that gift comes responsibility.

It’s been a tragic couple of weeks in our country. 18 year old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. In New York, Eric Garner died as the result of a chokehold, applied by police officer Daniel Palanteo during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. Both grand juries in these respective cases decided not to indict the officers for their roles in the deaths of the men; however, in Orangeburg, SC, a grand jury has decided to charge police chief Richard Combs with murder after Combs attempted to arrest Bernard Bailey, who was unarmed, and shot him to death next to Bailey’s truck parked outside. In all 3 cases, the cop was white, the victim black and unarmed. The first two decisions have sparked a wave of protests across the US, some peaceful, some full-on riots. The subject of equality and racial prejudice isn’t simply rekindling; it is an all-out raging wildfire. People are losing their businesses as a result of rioting, while others, hell-bent on destruction and revenge, have lost their minds. In some places, citizens say that the police can no longer to be trusted. Civil unrest rules the day, and many folks with the power of the microphone are taking advantage of their platform by taking a stand more suited for ratings than peace. Through all of this commotion, professional sports rolls on. They’ve always been our escape from everyday life. Pro sports have also been a joyful reason to gather with loved ones and cheer on their favorite team, or against their least favorite one. The stage of professional sports only grows larger, and with so many of us watching constantly, these athletes, ever so visible, have opportunities to do great things. Earlier this NFL season, in a game versus the KC Chiefs, five St. Louis Rams players held up their hands in protest, emulating Ferguson protesters. The Rams, the same NFL organization that requested stronger security presence for this particular game vs. KC, saw their reputation sour in a cloud of hypocrisy. Sure, it may have been five men exercising their right of free speech, but the message that came across wasn’t that simple. Their unified gesture may magnify the issue of racial inequality, but it did more than that. It inhibited an atmosphere of an “Us vs. Them” mentality in the arena of black vs. white, cops vs. blacks, cops vs. civilians, and government vs. the people. These five players had a chance to do something good. Instead, they became part of the problem.

While listening to the radio today, I heard an interesting fact. According to The New York Post, there were approximately 228,000 misdemeanor arrests in the state of New York in 2013. Not one of those cases resulted in a death of an African-American man at the hands of a white police officer. Zero. Too often folks are eager to cry foul before hearing evidence or the victim’s background. Take the case in New York, for example. Eric Garner had a lengthy arrest record. He was resisting arrest at the time of his death. He told the police that he refused to be arrested. He was already afflicted with heart disease and diabetes. It was a freak accident, yet because of the color of the persons involved, it’s automatically called “racism” by throngs of people. What you are probably expecting now is a big diatribe on how I am defending the police and not the families, and I will probably be called a racist. You’d be wrong, but I don’t need to spend my time defending myself, because I know better. If my words have to convince you instead of how I live my life, there would be no way of convincing you otherwise. Truth be told, I could care less what a person’s color is. Color doesn’t make someone a good or bad mother or father. Being a person of compassion and integrity does that. Color doesn’t cause someone to become a convict. A lack of moral fiber does. When I hear the statistic that more blacks kill blacks than anything else, I don’t shout the racist epithet “it figures”. I think it’s sad. If you’re reading this, and whether you agree with it or not, I won’t ask what your color is, because personally, I really don’t care. I’m happy that you have a mind to think freely, a voice to speak freely, but hopefully have the common sense and decency not to burn someone’s business down because you disagree with something that happened in a different place altogether. Anything I write in this post may be construed as politically incorrect. It’s all subjective. One of the real travesties, to me, is when professional athletes don’t take a step back, think about how they can affect change for good, make a rational and constructive game plan, then come out publicly and use their platform to help everyone.

Rams players Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Jared Cook, Chris Givens & Kenny Britt must have had a conversation prior to the game against KC. They’d obviously seen the television coverage on the situation in Ferguson. They knew they had a platform, and that millions would be watching. Since I don’t know any of them personally, I can only speculate, so I state the following with that in mind. All five were in obvious protest of what happened to Michael Brown. Were they simply standing up for injustice that they assumed had happened? Were they showing their displeasure with a crooked cop? Did any of them do their homework and find out the facts that were portrayed by the evidence? Hard to tell, because when given a chance to use their voices to exercise their right to free speech, they chose gestures instead, gestures they had seen prior to that day, that were already said to have been in protest of a police officer unjustly shooting an unarmed black man.

I coach kids, including my own. I watch sports on TV because I love it and it’s my job. I see the end zone dances, the showing up of other players, the gestures to challenge authority on many occasions. Does it make me think that every pro athlete is the same because of the actions of a chosen few? Absolutely not. I AM a former pro athlete. But these kids that do watch, those formidable minds that emulate stars and talk similar smack, DO follow what they see and hear. They had a chance to speak out, regardless of their opinion, and do something…..huge. Instead, in what they may think was a bold move to end racial prejudice, it actually made things worse. Through these horribly tragic situations, we must remember a few things. Three men have lost their lives, family members have lost loved ones, and that is extremely sad. It doesn’t matter what color they were. Just because someone has a police record doesn’t mean they deserved to die. It also doesn’t mean that because a police officer was a different color than the person who passed, they should be charged with murder. We still live in a country where due process is supposed to fulfil its’ potential. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Another sad discovery is that this country really doesn’t have it’s racial issues solved, they were simply lying dormant. Somehow people may have thought that having an African-American in the White House would solve that issue. In the last few years, and especially the last few months, it’s gotten worse. I’m not a politician, and I don’t agree with Obama’s politics, but what’s going on isn’t his fault. It’s not the President before him, and it won’t be the President after him, no matter what color they are. It’s corrupt hearts. It’s the human condition of sin. It’s the character flaw that looks at another person and judges them by the color of their skin. When that stops, racism will stop. If that’s true, then you may have come to the same conclusion I have…it probably won’t ever stop, and that’s the biggest crime of them all.

I am a firm believer that if I have the power to make changes and refuse to do so, I am simply a noisy gong, contributing to the problem. Professional athletes have power, power to infuse change for the good. Power that most people don’t have. Power to make a difference. When they choose to use the rights afforded them by living in this country for the negative, it’s a travesty. Former MLB player and ESPN broadcaster John Kruk once said that he was not a role model, a stance affirmed by former NBA All-Star and current broadcaster Charles Barkley. I love the job both of them do in the booth, and they were amazing during their careers; however, I couldn’t disagree more with their point of view. If you get paid to play a sport, you are one of the small percentage of people that have a platform. Whether they want to be or not, like it or not, they are role models. They should act as such. To wear a professional uniform is a gift, and with that gift comes responsibility. In the case of the St. Louis Five, they failed to see either point, and those of us who witnessed it were, in my opinion, the worse for it.