Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wild Speculation and Outlandish Guesses: Oh Shit, a Serious Topic Edition

The Trayvon Martin situation heated up (I just did that) this week when LeBron & the Ronettes Heat released a photo in solidarity with Trayvon Martin. The NBPA and the Miami Heat organization eventually waded (!) into the situation. What's your take?

Jacob Greenberg: Of the three, I found the National Basketball Player's Association (NBPA) statement the most interesting. Unions are supposed to be political organizations that stand in solidarity with other individuals or groups. Though unions only typically mobilize against injustices against other workers, they will offer statements of solidarity for a specific cause or individual. One can look to labor unions' early support for the Occupy movement, or immigration reform, as examples of this. Now, in my view, the NBPA has been a union only in the sense that it is the primary negotiating body for the players. It rarely offers political statements of any kind, and its members never stand on picket lines with other workers in solidarity. It operates more like a trade association (which is what it voted to become as a bargaining tactic during the 2011 Lockout). That the NBPA offered any sort of political statement -- let alone one that has, ostensibly, nothing to do with professional basketball except that it involves the race of the vast majority of its membership, and that a number of its members put forth an impromptu political gesture in the form of a Tweeted picture -- is somewhat remarkable. Though a statement hardly constitutes as a sit-in, or even a rally, I wonder if the Lockout emboldened the NBPA to become more like a multi-faceted political union, and less like a negotiating body for the players.

Symbol Lai: At first, I was impressed at the Heat's decision to take a stand on the Trayvon Martin. Sending out a statement about how the state condones and perpetrate racialized violence is not always a well-received stance in either the NBA, an organization that has gone to great lengths to rid itself of its associations with poor communities of color with dress codes and stringent rules, or an American public that values "balanced," "objective" perspectives. Given the fact that the players probably had no idea how people would react, I thought it was brave. They put themselves out there and took a stance.

Then, there was the out pour of support for the case from more official mouthpieces and I'm more on the fence about things. While I think it's great that a bunch of these major organizations are coming out very strong in support of this issue, I find it interesting in that the answer proposed by the NBPA calls on the criminal justice system--the same institution that is very much responsible for the racialization of young black men as violent gangsters--to basically exercise its power more harshly. It's certainly one way to talk about the issue--and I'm glad that there is dialogue around it--but the sentiment behind the NBPA statement seems to have a different tone. It's more official. Maybe a little more calculated even at first glance. I don't know.

Whatever it is, I hope the dialogue continues. I hope this is the starting point for many of the players who connected with this case. And, I hope that folks use this as a starting point for larger discussions that look for answers beyond addressing stereotyping and more police enforcement.

Franklin Mieuli: I've already written some thoughts on the matter so I won't write too much here, but in the five days since last Friday I have been impressed by LeBron, and unimpressed by the rest of the NBA. As far as I know LeBron hasn't said much more about the photo. He hasn't come off like he is the second coming of Moses, and doesn't seem like he is planning a line of Trayvon Martin Memorial Underwear.

The response from the rest of the NBA, however, is underwhelming. Carmelo, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo and Wade changing their Twitter pictures? C'mon.

What is the role of sports and social change? Is there a role? Do we prefer our stars to be like Mike and Tiger, or Etan Thomas and Steve Nash?

Jacob Greenberg: Absolutely there is a role between sports and social change. Some of the most iconic images of social change include sports, and athletes, in particular, play an important role in promoting change in a number of facets. Steve Nash and Etan Thomas are good examples of athletes who engage in various forms of political dialogue. Grant Hill and Jared Dudley are doing good work as well. But basketball -- and modern sports, really -- lack a figure like Muhammad Ali in today's sports. Can you imagine what would happen if an NBA player uttered something similar to Ali's famous 1975 quote against the Vietnam war -- "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong...No Viet Cong ever called me nigger" -- but switched out "Iraqi" or "Afghani" in today's NBA, and today's world? The fine from David Stern would be staggering. A suspension would be possible. 24 hour news and social media would pervert the statement into something that it wasn't. That type of political athlete cannot exist anymore. It's a shame.

Symbol Lai: Yes. There is a connection between sports and social change. Athletes, like anyone else, can make a difference if they want to even if they are mass commodities in a billion dollar industry. They can draw attention to an issue. They can choose to make a statement like the Heat. It doesn't even have to be some overtly political act like chaining themselves to a tree. How they choose to carry themselves in an industry that demands they conform to some sanitized image palatable to your average, law-abiding family can really highlight where the industry is fucked up. I think I talked about this in my introductory piece with Jacob. That was one of the reasons why I loved following Allen Iverson when I was younger. Granted he might not be your ideal activist or role model, but the fact that his presence and the racially-tinged, elitist shitstorm that seemed to follow him influenced me a lot. It really forced me to think through what was happening and I developed a better political critique, which I carry out in my own way, because of it.

As for which stars I prefer, if I had to choose, I'd say the Steve Nash type but probably because the other choice was Jordan (great player, very questionable ethics). In the end, I just want my stars to keep it real. I would like them to show some smarts, be critical, take stances but not in an overbearing, holier-than-thou, activist chic way. Be sincere about it. People can tell in your conduct.

Franklin Mieuli: It seems like, other than the special athlete or two (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos), sports is still a bastion of conservative political thought. I mean, why the fuck else am I supposed to stand up for the National Anthem at a basketball game? I mean, Steve Nash caused an uproar by wearing a shirt that read "No War. Shoot for Peace" which is about as strong of a political statement as the beauty pageant candidate trying to promote (Metta) world peace.

I would love to see a morally conscious superstar, but I just don't see it happening.

I think Grantland's piece on Harrison Barnes (from the always great Jay Caspian Kang)is related to this discussion. Today's stars seem to market themselves, and are afraid to do anything to jeopardize that. Will the Trayvon Martin photo change the perception of LeBron has solely concerned with his brand?.

Jacob Greenberg: It's a great gesture. As far as I know, he's the only athlete who made this public of a statement, and his inclusion of the Heat was powerful as well. That said, Tweeting a picture, or writing Trayon's name on his shoes, doesn't make him Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, Jr. However, LeBron did use his iconic stature, and wide reach as a global celebrity, to bring attention to the murder of Trayvon Martin. I can't hate.

Symbol Lai: Meh. Maybe if Lebron sustains this newfound social awareness and it develops, the overall perspective of the average NBA viewer may shift. It's hard to say when it's only one instance. If it's a question of whether or not Lebron will change how he manages stardom, I do think that it's possible because he's done so over the last year. He doesn't engage in the self-promotion as openly as before. He doesn't engage when the media is searching for a controversy to print. He's more matter-of-fact about things. That to me says that it's possible.

Wow. That was very optimistic of me. Must have taken one too many crazy pills.

Franklin Mieuli: The pessimist in me says that this was still just a form of marketing, to change LeBron's image after his two years of image hit after image hit. I understand the self-promotion thing (why do you think I'm on Twitter), but it's like these guys don't understand the difference between maintaining your image and outright creating one. The former can be dismissed as standard practice; the latter smacks of dishonesty.

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