Image via @KingJames.
Image via @KingJames.
1. The starkest and most painful thing about the murder of Trayvon Martin, and a big part of the reason I’ve kept making my own masochistic returns and re-returns to the story, is what a perfect circle of horror it is. Every new detail and brutal bit of context—about Martin’s killer and the terrified, miserable, self-besieged community in which Martin was killed—serves both to deepen our knowledge of what happened and push a possible collective understanding of this terrible thing even further away. That our discourse is so unready for an engagement with an injustice both so viciously specific and so symbolically vast isn’t a surprise, really—much of the media seeks to fit all news into an airless partisan context, the worst of it struggles to diminish a story until it's small enough to fit into its viewership’s shrunken, selfish hearts, and they’ve done that again, here. And the comments sections, as they do, open a window onto a Hobbesian universe, someplace simpler and crueler than this one, where every ugly thought charges giddily into battle with the most outrageous and toxic ignorance at its back.
But that’s our discourse, that is broadly us, and also that is this particular terrible thing. There just isn’t anything to do about this, finally. There’s no solving it. There’s barely any engaging it, even. My every return starts with an attempt to find some undiscovered thing that might somehow prevent this from happening again, and every return ends at the bottom of the same hole—what happened in Sanford should never have happened, but there is no way it can un-happen, and so here we all are. You and me and all the basketball players we know.
This is the coldest and least significant of possible comforts, but the statements of solidarity that have issued from the NBA over the previous week—Carmelo and Amar’e on Twitter; the NBPA in a seriously pointed public statement; the entire Miami Heat in that strangely affecting hoodied-down team photo that LeBron (LeBron!) tweeted—do offer at least the faintest heartening sense that all those who can be bothered to care are all feeling something similar about all this. Twitpics and strongly worded statements—and protests and petitions, even—can’t undo the injustice itself, or the various ruptures and recessions that created the context for this injustice and the ones to come. But a simple consensus about the awfulness of this particular thing, and the other things that made it possible is, at least, something—a place on which to stand, with other people, and maybe get to work on this together.
I can’t presume to know LeBron James’s heart, or ever really understand anything he does. There’s a fundamental impenetrability to LeBron which says less about him, I think, than it does about the distance his combination of Olympian greatness and unimaginable privilege puts between him and everyone else; that’s true to varying degrees of all his peers in the NBA. I was heartened to see that the mundane horror of what happened to Trayvon Martin had reached LeBron and the rest in something like the way it reached all of us who have been left so impotently reading and talking about it. The horror of this story is so manifold, massive and complicated—and the response to it has been so backwards and baffled and otherwise disheartening—that it’s tough to imagine a way in which anyone could do much more with it, in terms of an immediate response, than simply to feel and say something about it. There’s nothing a basketball player or anyone else can really quite do about it; Florida’s laws and law enforcers are too rotten, the Escher-ian inversions and tangles in the discourse and law are too confounding, and of course the crime itself cannot be undone, even through the belated delivery of justice. And the conditions that made all this possible endure, and metastasize hungrily.
But, but: those conditions, the broader injustices that embrace and enfold these many smaller injustices, those conditions would seem to be the thing to talk about. And this is where the resonance of the NBA’s show of solidarity comes from: all these people saying simply that they are people, and so just as easy to misunderstand or caricature or kill as any other. It's identity, and it's politics, but it's way more urgent, engaged and emphatic than the parodic, individuated hufferies we associate with “identity politics.” It seems, maybe, like a start. — David Roth
2. My immediate response to LeBron’s tweet—and a lot of people’s, in fact—was that we should applaud James for, what else, taking what amounted to a political stand. After all, the kind of racist paranoia that seems to have been at the root of the shooting is, thanks to our un-American Muslim dark-skinned president, very much a component of right-wing discourse. The country must be protected against foreign influence and order restored; the impulsive vigilante is nothing new, but laws that get his back and justify this behavior have, in effect, criminalized the Other.
The World Trade Center was brought down by operatives doing everything they could to blend in, which is why Obama can be our nation’s worst enemy despite having been fairly elected its leader, and the most remote hint that someone is “one of those” is a sign that danger is imminent. The spotless must be hiding something; those blemished in the least, like Trayvon Martin was by his hoodie, are orange-alert monsters emerging from their cocoons. Simply mourning Martin, as James did on sneakers this past Friday, is one thing. The hoodie picture embraced the very symbol that cost Trayvon his life. LeBron James went on record as saying it’s okay to be a black teen, and dress that way, in America.
Still, the outrage we’re hearing over Trayvon Martin’s death is less about the way politics have taken on a racial tinge (ahem), and more the way that racism has been obscured by policy. On the most visceral level, though, this is about the perils of being young, black and male in America, something that plenty of athletes can relate to; many of them are parents, too, which certainly factors into things. Obama’s comment about his own hypothetical son was meant to remove the issue from the current political climate. Even if Newt promptly found a way to use the line against the president, this response was meant to be so personal that it was self-evident.
It’s not risky, or even profound, for James, Wade and the rest to assert their right to survive. Attempts to legislate racism out of existence never quite did the job, and the persistence of raw bigotry is what has allowed for its current uses. It’s stunning, in a way, that it took time for this meme to catch on (maybe it took the Heat’s ingenious photo to set it off conceptually), since for black athletes to voice their anger over a modern-day lynching is the least they can do. It’s almost unavoidable.
Again, though, it’s telling that the Heat photo—identified closely with LeBron—got so much attention, since it allied itself with the hoodie in its most sinister-looking form. The group also added to this ambiguity: was it a mock gang, or just some dudes with the same fashion sense? Given the NBA’s issues with players “dressing black” and concerns on the part of the league office that the sport was regarded as “too black,” the Heat photo was itself transgressive, as well as a throwback. Here, players don hoodies—one of the articles of clothing absolutely forbidden by the dress code—to say, in effect, this is our right, and the right of everyone like us.
Of course, NBA stars are now more likely to dress preppy or as entry-level blipsters than be photographed with baggy, sagging jeans and Champion hoodies. Amar’e, with his knit hoodie, and Melo, who chose an especially close-fitting sweatshirt for his, are more in line with contemporary NBA style. Maybe fashion moved on; maybe the dress code pushed it there. Part of what makes these photos surprising, in the end, is that we find players once again taking up the mantle of identity politics within the league that seemed to have disintegrated when Allen Iverson left the building. — Bethlehem Shoals
3. In the context of major professional sports, NBA players stood out for wearing hoodies and showing solidarity in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. With brand management defining career decisions increasingly often, any statement that might conceivably give a Santorum child pause before buying sneakers becomes an instant outlier. It was a sign that, for once, an event or issue was so obviously worth commenting on that we could cut through all the bullshit and make a simple and important statement about their basic existence.
Yet, while David’s right to note that the Heat team photo and similar images are heartening because they broadcast a humanity we all felt in reaction to what happened to Martin, the relevant issue for them is personal in a way that three Jewish writers can never understand. The connection isn’t just that Martin and these athletes are African-American, but that they’re all black men who at some point in their lives have been discussed as threats to a particular way of life simply for how they dress or look. No one has ever tried to shoot LeBron James, but he has been vilified in scenarios inflected by his race. I don’t wish to equate the two experiences—one obviously had a more horrific outcome than the other. Still, people can connect to another’s experience even with a difference in degree.
This is all to say that, while race increasingly becomes a thinly veiled aspect of so much public policy, these athletes’ responses are more cultural than political, acting as statements of community rather than advocating direct action. That eventually came in the NBPA’s statement about the issue, in which they called for the arrest of George Zimmerman and the permanent resignation of Police Chief Bill Lee, but it’s important to note that never would have happened without so many players first voicing their personal feelings in a public forum. After that, it was only natural for that opinion to become a coherent, organizationally sanctioned statement calling for specific social justice.
That doesn’t mean that players made a political statement by accident. Instead, what this process suggests is that an athlete, like most Americans, has a political consciousness defined primarily by his personal experiences and values. In the past, LeBron has balked at speaking out against China’s involvement in the Sudanese genocide, in part because his involvement with Nike makes his global brand’s success dependent on Chinese factory labor. But how different is that experience, really, from that of the liberal engineer who earns a living working for a defense contractor? How many people compromise their stated political beliefs when personal benefit brushes up a vague and far-off affront to personal belief?
I don’t seek to excuse any lack of political action from athletes in the future—personally, I wish these same players would speak out on foreign wars or domestic tax policy. But it’s worth remembering that the Trayvon Martin case elicited such an overwhelming response from NBA athletes because they’re uniquely well-suited to identify with what happened to him. Their responses disregarded their personal brands because, on some level, this story cuts to the core of who they are. — Eric Freeman