On Sept. 16, Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old African-American father of four broke down in his SUV on the side of road in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and waited for help. Police arrived on the scene, and within minutes Crutcher, visibly unarmed and unaggressive, had been gunned down in the street by an officer.
I don’t enjoy having to write this sort of column. I shouldn’t have to be writing this sort of column in 2016. I’d much rather spend my time discussing LeBron James’ statistical dominance or Peter Sagan’s inimitable bicycle handling than having to repeatedly address America’s appalling propensity for racial injustice and inequality. However, when video of Terence Crutcher’s shooting surfaced and athletes from across the sporting world spoke out against the clear lack of value placed upon the life of a black man in this country, it gave me the opportunity, as a sports columnist, to once again address one of the disturbing realities of being black in America.
“I’m tired, man,” Russell Westbrook, star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, tweeted in response to Crutcher’s killing “And I’m scared. Cuz’ I’m big and my skin is brown. Lord don’t let my car break down, don’t let me be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Don’t let me reach for my phone or do anything threatening. Jesus help this nation.”
Westbrook’s statement is particularly poignant because it addresses something that I believe both he, and the myriad of other professional athletes who spoke out after the incident, have realized: No matter how wealthy, talented or important you might be, if you are black in this country, you could have been Crutcher.
The NBA and NFL have some of the most prominent black leaders and role models in America; in fact, people of color are underrepresented in just about every major field of leadership other than professional sports. Many black athletes are beginning to come to the conclusion that, as unfair as it is, they have a moral imperative to fight for positive change, regardless of the controversy they may cause. Say what you want to about Colin Kaepernick — and believe me, I’ve heard a full spectrum of opinions after I lauded his protest two weeks ago — but I’m fairly certain that he’s helped inspire a lot of NBA and NFL stars to take up the banner and join his crusade.
Kaepernick, Westbrook, Dwayne Wade, Iman Shumpert and a growing number of other athletes are, thankfully, joining in an effort to teach the millions of Americans who watch them a little bit about the nature of the black experience in our country.
One of the aspects of racism that people seem have the greatest difficulty grasping is that it can affect all people of color, regardless of their stature, class or jersey sales. I experience racism. My mother experiences racism. But so does Barack Obama, and I’m almost certain that every single one of the athletes I’ve mentioned does, too. The reason I feel compelled to write this article is the same reason that guys like Wade and Westbrook have to take their own stand.
There is a need for men of color, with any sort of voice or platform, to make their own voices and stories heard. People like Terence Crutcher are killed, in part, because black voices have been systematically and categorically silenced in this country. These athletes are doing their part to ensure that doesn’t continue to happen.
Mark my words when I say that all of these players will face a backlash. Kaepernick, who as I write this is still receiving death threats for his sideline protests during the national anthem, is a living testament to the fact that a black man is still not allowed to speak out against injustice without facing negative consequences.
Wade, Westbrook and the rest will all see that. But I hope that it doesn’t keep them from fighting.
If Crutcher’s death can mean something, let it be the last time that wearing a badge and a uniform gives you the right to kill an innocent and unarmed man. If these players’ protests and outcries do nothing else, let them force the many men and women in this country who disguise racism as patriotism to re-evaluate the moral ground upon which they stand.
It is 2016, and we live in what so many claim to be “the greatest country in the world.” I shouldn’t have to write this column any more than the most famous athletes in America should have to stand up together and say, “Enough is enough.”