Sports stars are generally known more for their narcissism than their compassion, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, athletes have expressed a tremendous amount of altruism and anguish over the amount of human suffering the storm has caused. That's not surprising, when you consider that more than 100 professional athletes come from the Gulf Coast, an area whose deep poverty, institutionalized racism and year-round sunshine combine to offer the requisite conditions for athletic success.
But these times cry out for something more than just sympathy and charity from the athletic-industrial complex: They cry for outrage. Athletes can use their hyper-exalted, swoosh-adorned platform to call out the murderous negligence of the Bush Administration and the country's deep racial divide. Muhammad Ali rose to such an occasion when he opposed the draft in Vietnam; Billie Jean King did the same when she spoke out for abortion rights in the early 1970s. The National Basketball Association's Etan Thomas is attempting to join their ranks, and he deserves both respect and support.
Thomas is raising both cash and supplies to help victims of the hurricane. But the Washington Wizards power forward is also putting his mouth where his money is. When we spoke last week, Thomas began by defending rapper Kanye West's unscripted comment on an NBC benefit concert that "George W. Bush doesn't care about black people" (West had just been called "disgusting" by that arbiter of racial sensitivity, Laura Bush).
"I definitely agree with Kanye West," he said. "Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water? When the hurricane hit in Florida, Bush made sure those people got help the next day. But now, when you are dealing with a majority poorer class of black people, it takes five days? Then you still don't send help but instead send the National Guard to 'maintain order'? Are you kidding me?"
Thomas also defended the rights of the people of New Orleans to survive by any means necessary. "If I was down there, and starving for five days, after suffering that type of devastation, and I saw some armed troops coming down not with food or water or supplies but with guns drawn trying to enforce a curfew or whatever they were doing, I would have reacted the same way many of them reacted, with hostility. I am not saying that I condone shooting at the police or firemen; I'm just saying that I understand their frustration. This is unfortunately a direct reflection of the entire Republican platform. The rich are awarded all of the rights, privileges, respect, et cetera in this country, and the poor are pushed to the side. You see that with education, healthcare, court justice and every other aspect of society. If this had hit a higher economic area, Bush would have reacted much quicker and more effectively. It's a sad reminder of the reality that is our society."
As political leaders are failing to state the obvious--that years of racist, callous policies enacted by racist, callous politicians have delivered us to this moment--we need to be willing to embrace nontraditional voices. That's what makes Thomas so welcome. The willingness to take a stand comes as naturally to Thomas as his trademark jump hook.
Moore Black Press recently published Thomas's More Than an Athlete, a blistering collection of poems that takes on topics like racism, the death penalty and a consumer culture that treasures objects over people. His voice is exactly the kind that people fighting for social justice need to embrace. Fortunately, thousands of people who may not know Shaquille O'Neal from Tatum O'Neal will hear Thomas in the weeks to come. Thomas will be lending his poetry and his politics to the Operation Ceasefire concert following the September 24 antiwar protests in Washington, DC, and he seems determined to continue to use his platform as an NBA player to raise issues of class and race that are rarely presented to young sports fans.
Thomas knows he is joining a tradition of pro athletes willing to step up for social justice, and he wouldn't have it any other way. "I admire athletes of the past, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]--athletes who used their position as a platform to speak out on social issues and stand up for a cause. Basketball is not my life. A quote I live by is: 'I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed.' "
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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