When Athletes Speak: A Commentary on Derrick Rose’s Public Protest

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When the Bulls visited the White House after their championship in 1992, guard Craig Hodges wore a dashiki and slipped a letter to President George H.W. Bush criticizing his administration’s treatment of minorities and the poor. Hodges, the Bulls 3-point ace between 1988 and 1992, was known for his political activism and most notably criticized his teammate Michael Jordan in 1992 for his failure to use his position to speak out on important social and political issues.

“When they came to Michael after the L.A. deal went down and asked him what he thought, his reply was that he wasn’t really up on what was going on. I can understand that, but at the same time, that’s a bailout situation because you are bailing out when some heat is coming on you. We can’t bail anymore.” -Craig Hodges, June 5, 1992, 1 month after the end of the LA Riots.

Hodges was released from the Bulls in 1992 and never played in the NBA again. In 1996 he filed a $40 million lawsuit against the NBA claiming the league and the Bulls conspired to end his NBA career because of his political positions, something the league denied. Whether Hodges’ politics played role in his abbreviated NBA career is up to interpretation, but the fact remains that Hodges felt targeted, illustrating the risk athletes take in expressing controversial political opinions. As Hodges said in a 2008 ESPN article, “What I did at the White House embarrassed the league, and it made a lot of people uncomfortable, and they did something about it.”

Political protest and Bulls basketball collided again Saturday night when Derrick Rose warmed up before the contest against the Golden State Warriors in an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, placing himself and his brand firmly on the side of the supporters of Eric Garner and in opposition to a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer that killed him this summer.

The question of how, when, and if famous athletes should express opinions is an old one. Some people believe athletes are around simply for entertainment and do not care what they think unless it pertains to the sport. The “shut up and play” crowd is loud, and they were out last night, though not in the same numbers that I have come to expect when an athlete takes a public stand on a controversial issue.

However, some people like the athlete who uses his or her influential position to draw attention to important issues. Whether it be Tommie Smith’s or John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 olympics or Craig Hodges’ subtle passing of a letter to President George Bush, to many these athletes are fulfilling a larger social obligation to the society from which they have benefitted. For Derrick Rose this resulted in a significant outpouring of respect under the Eric Garner hashtag on Twitter.

Derrick Rose has been no stranger to controversy since the start of the season. From his injuries, to comments about his long term health, to his defiant defense of his mindset, it is a fact that Rose has alienated many fans and left others skeptical of him and his ability to lead the Bulls. Much more unfortunate, however, is how negative attitudes toward Rose have crept into the analysis and response to Rose’s public protest, which is entirely separate and should garner praise despite reservations about his play on the court.

Some used the occasion to vent frustration in the form of jokes about his nagging injuries and delayed returns, which will probably always be a part of any commentary surrounding Rose. Such commentary is also leveled at many other players who struggle with injury, especially on social media so it was not surprising to see people leveling a jab or two at Rose’s expense.

But there is another, much uglier type of criticism being leveled at Rose with increasing frequency recently due to his public comments concerning his injuries and future. It is a more personal criticism that questions his commitment to the team and the city while calling him everything from ignorant, to stupid, to inarticulate. These comments, which to some feel like a personal dislike, were present in every social media thread about Derrick Rose Saturday night.

To give Bernstein’s credit, he did praise Rose on having the guts to make the statement and called his decision to do so more important than Rose’s performance or the outcome of the game, a statement with which I agree. However, many people on Twitter and other social media sites expressed serious doubts about Rose’s intelligence or ability to understand his political stance despite having no evidence on which to base such a conclusion. Rose’s own background and his involvement in his community provide ample evidence to the contrary.

No matter how one likes his or her athletes, remember that, like all of us, they have opinions; the only difference is that everyone in the world informs them as to how, when, and under what circumstance they express that opinion. The public is always waiting, standing in judgment, a judgment that in some cases can be harsh. Jason Hall at the Bulls Zone wrote last week about accepting Derrick Rose for who he is now, a more thoughtful Derrick Rose and a player who now thinks about more than just basketball. Perhaps this is part of the new package since Derrick Rose is the last Bull I would have picked out to make an on-court political statement about an issue causing massive protests all over the United States. However, I am glad that he did because it shows that Rose can lead. Being a leader is about more than stat lines in a basketball game and taking a public stand on issues as controversial as police brutality and racism requires more guts than playing through sprained ankles in November.

Follow me on Twitter @jlw771

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Posted on December 7, 2014, in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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