Amid social and political concerns, Team USA will speak out when needed

United States guard DeMar DeRozan (9) fights for a loose ball with Argentina center Roberto Santiago Acuna (35) during an exhibition basketball game Friday, July 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. The United States won 111-74.
United States guard DeMar DeRozan (9) fights for a loose ball with Argentina center Roberto Santiago Acuna (35) during an exhibition basketball game Friday, July 22, 2016, in Las Vegas. The United States won 111-74. AP

When your hometown birthed perhaps the most popular anti-police violence in the history of rap music, it would seem natural to have an opinion on all the news that’s been made lately.

DeMar DeRozan is from Compton and sports tattoos paying homage to the “Hub City” with pride. He starred at Compton High School and since he entered the NBA has tried to bring positivity to a city that some first learned about in the late 1980s when the legendary rap group N.W.A. brought its frustration with police harassment and violence to light with the song “(Expletive) Tha Police.”

The situations N.W.A. rapped about can be seen in 2016 thanks to cellphone videos that have had the country raging with anger on both sides this summer with cries to end police violence and cries to end violence against police.

But instead of waiting for Ice Cube to write another song, athletes are expressing their frustrations.

“Now with everything else that’s going on, it’s our duty to do more and try to bring light to it and try to make it better,” DeRozan said. “Especially in the position we’re in, and for anybody that’s at a higher level, it’s our duty to try to give back.”

The Olympics give the basketball team a global platform to express concerns, frustrations and views on what happens in society. But that voice is amplified as athletes can turn to social media and their own forms of media, like The Players’ Tribune, to reach the public.

Mixing sports and politics is always tricky. Even though there is a history of athletes as activists when Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar were prominent figures in the struggle for civil rights, athletes have been boxed in by many in the public who would rather see them perform but not hear their voices on non-sports issues.

David J. Leonard, a professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, said actions that isolate athletes, such as college dorms solely for athletes, lend to a mindset that gives them a singular identity as just an athlete without a voice that matters outside of sports.

Leonard said athletes in the NBA and WNBA expressing themselves on social issues is their way of shattering that singular existence.

“They’re saying ‘We exist in this world,’ ” Leonard said. “ ‘Please stop acting like we exist in a bubble and act like we don’t exist or are affected on multiple levels by the violence, by the racism, by those stereotypes that are circulating, and that is very powerful.’ 

Leonard said when athletes speak out on social issues, it makes fans uncomfortable. This is especially true for black athletes who play in front of crowds that are largely white. Leonard said the athletes are essentially putting a mirror in the faces of fans, owners and sponsors, and forcing them to question why they might not be doing all they can to address social issues.

USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo has no problems with athletes giving their opinions, given the climate of the country. And Colangelo does not plan to address what players say.

“I think it’s great that guys are willing to step out and say what they want to say,” Colangelo said. “Before anyone says anything, you have to be ready to back it up in terms of what are you really going to do with it, but I think they all know that. They don’t have to be told. They’re grown men. And I’m sure of this: They’re being pulled by different forces to do A, B or C. They have to make their own decisions on what they do, but certainly with the circumstances in our country today, a lot of things need to be addressed, and why should they not?”

Perhaps the loudest voice on Team USA is Carmelo Anthony. The New York Knicks star wrote a post on social media, imploring athletes to do more to help the community and not be swayed by what the public might say or how it might affect endorsements.

“I just think everybody just has to play a part in keeping that dialogue open, that conversation open,” Anthony said. “I’ve had a lot of very important people reach out to me, wanting to do something, seeing how they can help, how they can step up. So for me, it was just about getting everybody, not just athletes, people out there, talking to the right people, talking to the community, trying to have a voice for the community because they need it.”

Anthony is not concerned about any negative backlash from anyone who thinks he should keep quiet and just focus on the Knicks.

Some of the backlash athletes face when speaking out are related to their pay. When someone like Anthony, who makes in excess of $24 million in salary, speaks out, there can be resentment because some believe someone who is wealthy should not worry about such issues.

Also, the stereotype of the dumb athlete makes some believe players have nothing to say.

“At the end of the tragedies that happen, it affects people and at the end of the day we’re athletes, but we’re human beings, we’re affected by all of that,” Anthony said. “We have families in some of those cities and some of those situations, so we’re affected. Just because we play basketball and we’re athletes doesn’t mean we’re not affected.”

Leonard notes that wanting to limit an athlete’s voice based on their salary is to assume money can buy their emotions or conscience. But athletes are fighting the stereotypes.

“I think there’s a fundamental challenge that is going on through just standing up and saying, ‘I need to be heard and seen, and my life needs to be valued,’ ” Leonard said. “ ‘Not just when I have a ball in my hands, not just when I’m scoring a touchdown, but when I have something to say.’ 

As Team USA’s exhibition tour continues Sunday in Los Angeles, there will be no escaping the social ills that plague the country. The team will play in Oakland on Tuesday, where a police sex scandal has rocked the department.

The team plays in Chicago, too, where gun violence continues to be a major concern. Leonard said with social and global media, the world is well aware of the problems in America and players might be asked by international media about the civil unrest in the country.

“The world knows and is covering the level of police violence, the rhetoric that is coming out of the Republican convention,” Leonard said. “It will be interesting to see, given that level of knowledge, if questions are asked. … It’s simply not just about black athletes using that platform and if they’re asked about what is going on and it’s clear that whether asked or not, many on the USA basketball team have something to say and are going to say it, irrespective of how that may make people feel.”

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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