Etan Thomas: Athlete Activist
NBA veteran Etan Thomas speaks his mind on speaking your mind
Photographs by Anthony Geathers
As a 10-year NBA veteran with the Washington Wizards, Oklahoma City Thunder and Atlanta Hawks, Etan Thomas was not afraid to speak his mind about important subjects in the news, often resulting in criticism from fans and the media. In his new book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism, Thomas tirelessly interviews a range of people from NBA icons to the families of crime victims to illustrate the importance of athletes using their voice for more than just sports.
Your new book is called We Matter: Athletes and Activism. What inspired you to write about this topic?
I have been involved in activism since high school. I was active both at Syracuse University and with the Washington Wizards. But I wanted to delve into this topic, because it is so “right now.” You have the Colin Kaepernick movement; you have so many athletes using their voice in a way that we probably haven’t seen since the 1960s. As a collective whole, you have athletes speaking out, and I wanted to capture that in detail. Of course Colin Kaepernick has been a flashpoint for this discussion, but why do you think now is the time that athletes are beginning to speak out in numbers? We spoke about this with a number of people in the book. There’s a lot of criticism that comes with speaking out. We were watching The Oscars. Kobe Bryant won an Oscar, but he immediately referred to a criticism from (Fox News broadcaster) Laura Ingraham, who told LeBron James and Kevin Durant to just “shut up and dribble.” When they were speaking out about (President) Trump and what it means to be a black man in America, her response was “just shut up and dribble.”
There’s so much condemnation, and so many people criticizing when athletes speak out, but this is not something new. This happened in the Sixties as well. I was able to interview people who I admired growing up, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, and I got to ask them about how they were able to deal with the criticism that they received in their heyday. I always tell (US Olympic medalist) John Carlos that I grew up with his picture on my wall. He told me that you can’t know what It’s like when the whole world comes down on you, after you make a stance for something that you believe is right. The criticism is always going to happen, but you admire the athletes who are able to withstand that level of criticism and still stand firm on what they believe in.
You have mentioned some of the iconic people whom you have interviewed for the book. But you interviewed a wide spectrum of people about this topic. How did you decide which voices you wanted to have in the book?
I wanted to include a lot of different voices. I wanted to include members of the media like Michael Wilbon, Michael Smith and Jemele Hill of ESPN, Chris Hayes from MSNBC, Soledad O’Brien. A lot of times, the media is responsible for covering this subject, so let’s talk about how they feel about it. I had a great conversation with Bomani Jones about the reaction to Black Lives Matter, and the reaction to athletes speaking about Black Lives Matter. It was interesting to hear their perspectives.
How has the climate changed since you first became an NBA player?
The change has been quite drastic. Social media changes everything. We didn’t have social media when I was playing in the early 2000s. With social media, you just have so much power. LeBron James can tweet something out and 45 million people will see it instantly. Could you imagine if Muhammad Ali had a Twitter account? (laughs) It’s just amazing the amount of power and reach that an athlete can have now at their fingertips.
I also talk in the book about things like police brutality. People are posting videos of it on social media, and that’s caused a lot of athletes to speak out the way it’s caused a lot of Americans to speak out and to feel outrage. How can a man like Eric Garner, who did not have a weapon, be choked to death after yelling “I can’t breathe” eleven times, on camera, and nothing happened? There’s no punishment. And you have athletes asking the same questions that people are asking. When Trayvon Martin was killed, it just took everyone’s breath away. It was like, wow, there was this young man, and he didn’t have a weapon. He wasn’t doing anything wrong; he was just walking.
And it had a lot people, especially black men and their families, look at their own children. I open up the book talking about my son, and if I put a hoodie on him, he looks just like Trayvon Martin. So you had athletes like Dwyane Wade, who I interviewed, talk about their personal connection to these cases and how they look at their own sons. They’re not just inserting themselves into conversations because it’s the conversation of the day. These are personal. Russell Westbrook talks about seeing Terence Crutcher on the side of the road, asking for help, and seeing how it ended with him being a threat and being killed by the police, Officer Betty Shelby. And he spoke about how unjust it was publicly. I wanted to capture their passion of why they were speaking out and the criticism that came with it. And all of them weren’t even worried about the criticism. If it was something you feel deeply about, then you speak about it regardless of the criticism. I wanted to applaud them for that.
You spoke to the families of some victims. What was their reaction to having athletes speak out?
I talked to Trayvon Martin’s brother, and he caught me off guard. He said, “if it weren’t for athletes, then most people wouldn’t even know my brother’s name.” And I was like, wait a minute, why would you say that? I mean, I know athletes spoke out, but why do you feel that way? He said that most people didn’t understand. When Trayvon was killed, the family was attempting to get the local press in South Florida to cover the story. They wanted everyone to know what happened to their loved one. And they were told that this wasn’t a story. A young black man got killed; this happens every day. It’s not a story.
But when athletes started speaking out, when the entire Miami Heat wore the hoodies in the picture as a team, and they talked personally about Trayvon Martin meant to them—he started seeing Dwayne Wade talking about it, LeBron talking about it—that’s what really brought attention to it. He had tears in his eyes. He said he was just thankful for them doing that. That just shows the power of athletes using their voices, and I wanted to continue to encourage that. Every family had a similar story. Philando Castile’s sister told me that if she could hug every one of the WNBA players who was speaking out for her brother, who was killed in the summertime while they were in season, she would. Because they spoke out on Philando’s behalf. They told the world that this is not right. And we’re not going to be silent, because people might disagree with us or threaten our jobs.
The families were so grateful that athletes were willing to do that, to speak out on behalf of their loved ones. The threat of losing your job is an interesting thing. You would think that this has changed since the Sixties, but it has not. Colin Kaepernick still does not have a job. When we interviewed Oscar Robertson previously, he told us that the civil rights leaders of the time told him directly that he should not be vocal, because they didn’t want him to lose his job.
What things did you learn in interviewing some of the pioneers of this movement that surprised you?
I learned a lot from speaking not only to guys like John Carlos, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson, but guys like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges—guys who played later, but were still elders to us. A lot hasn’t changed. I asked them if they felt proud when they see today’s athletes using their voices to speak out, and they said yes, definitely. The older guys said that the way they were looked at in the Sixties is different than the way athletes are looked at today.
I interviewed Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Laila Ali. She always says that back in Muhammad Ali’s heyday, when he was speaking out about racism and why he didn’t want to fight in the Vietnam War, he was not looked at the way he is looked at now. Now, they build monuments and statues for him. But back in the day, they didn’t embrace him that way. In a few decades, people will look at Colin Kaepernick a lot differently and will be able to appreciate his courage to stand up for what he believes in.
When a broadcaster makes a comment about LeBron James or Kevin Durant, it’s pretty easy to see that these athletes have huge platforms now. So if you want to get attention for yourself, you can attach yourself to them by criticizing them. If the athlete responds, they’ve lifted the critic into the debate and made them bigger by acknowledging them. As an athlete, what criticism do you need to respond to and what criticism do you need to ignore?
It’s tough to do. It’s hard to put yourself in their shoes unless you are the one being verbally attacked in the media. I dealt with that when I was at the Washington Wizards. There was a reporter from the Washington Times named Tom Knott who hated me, because I spoke out on the war in Iraq. We just had a different opinion. He was the Laura Ingraham of that time. He
said you should just shut up and dribble.
The “shut up and play” or “shut up and dribble” aspect of the criticism only happens when they disagree with you. But if they agree with you, they’re applauding! That’s great! This athlete is using his platform to speak out against domestic violence or whatever the cause may be. But when you disagree, that’s when you hear you need to shut up and dribble. It’s an interesting
dynamic because you are only allowed to speak when someone agrees with what you say. It’s a selfish position to take.
I interviewed Chris Hayes of MSNBC, and he was fascinated by this switch from fandom to hatred. It goes from wanting your picture on their son’s wall and having them wear your jersey, but when you say something they don’t agree with, it’s switched to a hatred. They’re burning your jersey. How dare you speak about this subject! And it’s only because they disagree with you.
I think it’s safe to say that LeBron James isn’t in jeopardy of losing his job if he speaks out, because he is the best at what he does. Colin Kaepernick is excellent at what he does, but wasn’t in that same elite stature. As an athlete, how much do you do all of the permutations in your head on what your status is on the team, or even things such as does the owner of the team agree with me or disagree? There are so many variables that are involved.
I wasn’t a superstar athlete, but I was speaking out on different things. And this notion of “you have to be careful” kept coming up as warnings! I mean people, genuinely having care for what was going to happen to me, would say, “You can’t just say whatever you want to say! There’s going to be repercussions for it!” What I wanted to show in the book was some of the people
who were in positions of power when I played, and I did not have that experience. Now of course, it depends on who is the person in the position of power. I was drafted by Mark Cuban, so I interviewed him. He’s not shy about telling people how he feels, so we had a long conversation about how he values the players’ opinions, even when he doesn’t agree with them. And that’s the important part. Mark felt that athletes had the right to use their platforms to express their opinions, even if he disagrees with them.
I interviewed Ted Leonsis, the CEO of the Washington Wizards, and he echoed the same thing. Ted talked about how proud he was when Bradley Beal spoke out about Black Lives Matter, and when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed, and how much criticism he received. And Bradley stood up to the criticism and said, “No! This is wrong! You can criticize me all you want, but what happened to them is wrong.”
I interviewed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and he talked abut the rich history of activism in the NBA. We saw at the All-Star Game, they had a special section of the activists of the league, and they had Bill Russell, Kareem and Oscar Robertson, and they paid tribute to them right there. So then it became a question of is the NBA just different than the NFL?
It’s a good question because the NBA has seemed to embrace activism from its players, and by doing so it has alleviated a lot of the tension. While the NFL still doesn’t seem to know what to do with activism, and that creates even more tension.
No question. One thing I did realize is that we’ve probably seen more activism this season from NFL players than we have ever seen. I can’t remember a time where we’ve seen this many NFL players speaking out and using their voices. I spoke with Eric Reid, who was kneeling with Kaepernick the entire time. I asked him specifics about why he chose to stand with Colin and what the criticism was like. And he said he criticism was amazing. They purposely switched the narrative of what they were protesting for.
That’s an important point. The hijacking of the message is a critical component to this. As an athlete, you can’t always control when the narrative gets sidetracked.
It is. Eric Reid has repeatedly said, “This is not about the military. This is not about the flag. This is about the political process.” Colin did not like the corruptness of politics. It was about systemic racism, and it was also about police brutality. He listed these as the reasons for why he was taking a knee. Eric said he had family in the military and had respect for the military. He even told the story about how they conversed with a veteran to determine how they could demonstrate without showing disrespect to the military, and that’s how they came up with taking a knee. They had an entire process of how they came up with it. And still, the topic was disrespecting the military and disrespecting the flag, because they didn’t want to deal with his reasons for protesting the anthem.
If you look at it historically, what made the protests of athletes like John Carlos and Muhammad Ali so incredibly powerful was that they weren’t supposed to do it. So when you look at how the NFL has dealt with the protests, to me, it made them more powerful because the athletes were risking something.
Torrey Smith talked about how it’s never the right time. He was a teammate of Colin Kaepernick, and he said the first criticism that he received was that this wasn’t the appropriate venue for protest, and this wasn’t the right time. You need to protest on your own time. Well then when is the right time? If I do it in my living room, then you aren’t going to see it.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was always told that this isn’t the right time to protest. This isn’t the right pace for it. This is a non-violent peaceful protest. If this isn’t the right way to do It, then what would be the right way that would be ok for you. And no way is ever right. LeBron James and a lot of NBA players wore t-shirts that said “I can’t breathe,” and they were told, no, that’s not the right way. When Craig Hodges was a player, he wrote a letter to the President that he was going to hand him at the White House. I interviewed Craig Hodges, and he was like, no that’s definitely not the right way to do it.
Well, little did Craig Hodges know that today, players would be fighting with the President on the internet. You don’t even have to hand him a letter anymore.
Isn’t it crazy how things change?
I imagine there are large numbers of athletes who don’t feel comfortable speaking out for various reasons.
People always ask if its an obligation for athletes to speak out. I would never use the word obligation. It’s not fair. They’re not obligated to do anything, if they are not passionate about it. For one, you have to be able to defend yourself of the criticism that is to come, or you are going to be made to look the buffoon. They are immediately going to attack your knowledge of the subject, your character. You are going to have to be able to defend your position. But when it’s not your passion, you can’t force someone to do that. That’s why I always say athletes have an enormous opportunity. Not an obligation, but an opportunity, because there is so much power when athletes use their voices.
Even at the college level, when you look at Missouri or the University of Oklahoma. You have this youth movement right now, and the youth are using their voices. Its beautiful to see. It’s probably harder for college athlete because they have so little leverage. There’s safety in numbers, so how do you get to those numbers? How do you get enough people where it’s a little safer for you step out and speak up? Well that’s just it. There is a strength in numbers. With the Oklahoma situation, there was a situation we talk about in the book where there was a fraternity singing a racist song. So the entire football team said this is not acceptable on our campus. They all collectively said, we are not going to stand for this. And then you saw something happen. The same thing happened at the University of Missouri. You had these racial incidents happening on campus. The president of the university didn’t do anything about it. At some point the student body connected with the football team, and the football team joined them as a whole, and said, this is not right. We are going to stand with them until something is done, and you saw the needle move.
We talk about the financial inequality of the NCAA, how the university makes billions, and the players don’t see any of the money. There is a whole chapter on this in the book. I wanted to speak to Oscar Robertson, because in his day, there was no free agency for players. You think about that today, and guys are like, wait, there was no free agency? You couldn’t interview teams to see where you wanted to play? No! You couldn’t! And there’s a strong parallel to the NCAA. Oscar said you are looking at me like, well, how did you even survive in a system like that with no free agency. Oscar hopes that years from now, players will look at me and say, “How did you survive a system like the NCAA, where the schools made billions and you didn’t get compensated at all? How is that even possible?” The same way that the NBA players had to stand a system that they were told was the only way it could possibly work. That’s the fight happening right now in the NCAA.
You talk about it not being an obligation to speak out, but it must be comforting for you to see the top players in the NBA treating it as an obligation, because they know that when they speak out, it offers some form of protection to the players who aren’t as untouchable.
No question, it takes the big players, because they can’t get rid of them. The fact that the entire Miami Heat team wore the hoodies to represent Trayvon Martin, well they are not going to suspend LeBron James and the whole team. So then management says, “We support them.” Now if one or two people would have done it, you don’t know what would have happened. You can’t suspend everybody. That’s what made what the WNBA did so special. They did it as an entire league. That’s something I’ve never seen before.
As an athlete, you get used to criticism. Social media is an accelerant for that criticism. What did the athletes with whom you spoke have to say about the intensity of that criticism?
The criticism happened in the past as well. You used to get letters written to you. Now with Twitter, you can read fifty of those nasty letters in a minute. That’s right. A lot of athletes feel unmoved by it, and that s why you have to tip your hat to them for their courage. But in this social media age, you are going to be criticized for everything. You are expecting it. Take LeBron James for example. If he scores 30, he should have scored 40. If he gets a triple-double, then he passes too much (laughs)! So this recent criticism of “shut up and dribble” just added to the criticism. One of the things that was interesting to me was that you would find media criticism of why the athletes of today don’t speak out like the athletes of the 60s. And then the same media says, well why are these athletes speaking out so much?
What’s next for you after this book?
I’m speaking a lot on college campuses. There’s a wonderful youth movement going on in this country. You’ve seen it from the students in Florida after the school shooting. These are 16 and 17 year olds! They are using their voices collectively to be heard, and it’s inspiring. So I want to keep shining a spotlight and encouraging that next group of young athletes to use their platform and not just shut up and dribble.
We Matter, Athletes and Activism (Akashic Books) is available at Amazon.com.