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VOL. 132 | NO. 13 | Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pro Athletes Have Platform to Discuss Race

By Bill Dries

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After touring the National Civil Rights Museum Saturday, Jan. 14, before a forum on race and sports, journalist and commentator Marc Spears had an immediate thought as the panel discussed whether racism is becoming institutionalized in America.

Mike Conley, second from left, and Elliot Perry, right, were among the past and present NBA players on hand at NCRM’s 2017 Sports Symposium.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Y’all are going to have to build a new wing,” the senior writer for ESPN’s “The Undefeated” said of the museum. “I still feel like I’m in the ‘50s in a lot of ways.”

The panel discussion on “the intersection of race and sports” also featured former NBA players Grant Hill and Steve Smith as well as Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale. And the topics explored in the discussion, moderated by ESPN’s Mark Jones, ranged from the presidency of Donald Trump and black-on-black crime to Colin Kaepernick’s sideline protest in the NFL to police violence and violence against police.

The forum was part of the museum’s observance of the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the NBA’s annual MLK game Sunday between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Chicago Bulls.

“The players are very visible and have a lot of access to the media and now to social media,” said Hill, a former NBA player and television sports commentator. “I think that kind of contributes to the mindset of this generation to the point that everyone has a platform. That’s all they know.”

Hill said Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee at San Francisco 49ers football games when the national anthem is played is a legitimate expression and chance to talk about the issue of how police treat African-Americans.

He also rejected the idea that players should stick to the game.

“I feel like it’s demeaning, I feel like its disrespectful,” Hill said of the criticism directed at Kaepernick and other players including NBA players who took Instagram photos in hoodies three years ago to protest the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.

“We all live in a country where we all have freedom of speech, the freedom to express ourselves,” Hill said. “I think sometimes we put people in a box. … I think part of the problem is we (have to) learn to listen to one another. We learn to talk at each other instead of talk to each other, understand each other.”

“I think you respect that first,” he said. “A lot of us didn’t even know why he was doing it. … I think the word respect is being lost.”

Fizdale said athletes speaking out is a good thing. Several of those on the panel included Grizzlies player Mike Conley, who in July said it was time for players to speak up as he signed a contract that made him the highest-paid player in the NBA at the time.

“I haven’t celebrated one day in light of all of the events that are going on in this world and in America,” Conley said at the time. Conley toured the museum Saturday with those on the panel.

Fizdale said as a coach he offers players a platform.

“I just try to make sure we all have a platform and we can speak openly without getting offended,” Fizdale said. “And everybody can be heard without losing our team chemistry. … At the end of the day, these guys are aware. They know what’s going on in the world.”

Players can make such statements rapidly on social media and without a filter. But Fizdale and Hill said the problems they are speaking out about aren’t new.

“It’s been going on forever. … It’s real,” Fizdale said. “It’s so in our face, so fast and in so many different places.”

Spears said the expectation that there might be a roll back of some civil rights and poverty programs during a Trump presidency could have an upside.

“In a weird way, it may unite the country,” he said.

Fizdale said he is optimistic and that communities and efforts outside government are the source of his optimism.

“I’m tired of waiting on the government,” he said. “I’m diving in. … We are the optimism.”

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