The Sixers like to point to their forward-thinking nature as a point of pride; they sing this tune with each new business venture they dip into, from eSports to their partnership with Stub Hub. Last night leads one to question whether they feel the same about how they grapple with issues facing the black community.
We’re not breaking any news here -- singer Sevyn Streeter took to Twitter last night to relay a story about how she was all set to sing the anthem in front of a packed house in South Philadelphia. She was turned away by the organization when they spotted her wearing a jersey touting a simple message: “We Matter”.
After catching some heat for the decision, the organization passively acknowledged what happened in this mealy-mouthed statement that didn’t even bother to acknowledge Streeter by name:
The Philadelphia 76ers organization encourages meaningful actions to drive social change. We use our games to bring people together, to build trust and to strengthen our communities. As we move from symbolic gestures to action, we will continue to leverage our platform to positively impact our community.
Those are three sentences that say absolutely nothing. That reflects last night’s decision-making perfectly — they allowed Streeter to say nothing, they contributed nothing, and by rejecting her choice in the first place they blew up a peaceful message into a bad look for the organization.
Streeter’s message wasn’t explicit, but it is clear -- she wanted to use her platform during a National TV game to re-emphasize that black Americans matter.
There is nothing controversial about the idea behind Black Lives Matter, nor is this a new issue. The core of this outcry is based on black America’s experience in dealing with systemic oppression since this country’s foundation; BLM simply brings focus to this for a nationwide audience. Implications of what it means to be black in America have been spelled out over time, amplified today by the power of technology. Activists and regular citizens have shouted for decades about being treated unfairly by the system, and now they have brutal killings on camera to back up the pain they’ve felt.
This is an important topic for the NBA. Roughly 75 percent of the NBA’s players and 45 percent of their audience — the latter their biggest demo by about five percent — is black. At times, the league has shown a willingness to let players speak out on issues within the larger black experience, like when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving wore, “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts as a tribute to Eric Garner, who was choked to death by New York City police officers.
The Sixers had a choice to make last night, and their decision was to back away from this conversation and wave their hand at it like it will just go away. That’s not good enough.
Let’s circle back to March of 2015, when the Sixers tasked their players with honoring fallen Philadelphia officer Robert Wilson through commemorative warm-up shirts, featuring a humongous Philadelphia Police badge on the back:
Upon closer inspection, you can see a couple of Sixers (Henry Sims and Jerami Grant) in the background who aren’t wearing the shirts. There’s also a pile of them at mid-court being attended to by Sixers staffers, indicating that there may have been unrest amongst the players regarding the arrangement.
And yet, the show had to go on.
This is not to diminish the story of Wilson himself — it is heroic, with no qualifiers necessary — but to highlight the organization feeling comfortable asking their players to wear the shield of the Philadelphia Police on their backs, while not allowing someone else to state a message as simple and inherently just as “We Matter” during a brief appearance on their court.
When Colin Kaepernick has done his silent protest before NFL games, he’s been reprimanded by people who tell him to leave the country if he doesn’t like it. When black Americans stand up and simply say their lives matter, they’re met by hordes of white Americans who twist their message as if it means that the lives of other ethnicities don’t matter. And when it comes time to honor Wilson, those same critics are happy to use the story of a good person like Wilson to explain away or dismiss the shortcomings of less-righteous peers and the criminal justice system at large.
The voices of black Americans are muted and disputed, even as evidence piles up consistent with what they explain is their plight, while the broader institution that fails to serve them continues to skate by unchallenged for their failings.
The familiar refrain of “keep politics out of sports!” doesn’t hold water here. Systemic forces working against black America isn’t political, it’s a human rights issue. The Sixers have shown they’re happy to support causes when it suits them (and Jerry Colangelo is well-known as a devout conservative). Besides, despite protests from people who don’t like the causes, sports have been one of the most important vehicles for activism for decades upon decades.
Some of America’s most famous black heroes are athletes who stood tall in the face of discrimination. Jackie Robinson’s color-barrier breakthrough is the go-to tale here, but he’s not alone. There’s Jesse Owens kicking Nazi Germany’s ass in the ‘36 Berlin Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists at the ‘68 Summer Games, and more modern examples that figure to stand up to the test of time.
The Sixers were asked to do nothing radical last night. All they had to do was give less than two minutes of air-time to a woman who simply wanted to echo a cause that should matter to everyone, to give voice to black individuals who are continuously treated as a faceless herd.
With their initial decision and piss-poor excuse for a statement, the Sixers served no one but those actively offended by the very uttering of “Black Lives Matter”. Instead of recognizing the audience they do have — more black and more progressive than the rest of America’s major sports leagues — they straddled the fence to appease a demographic who by and large rejects the NBA to begin with.
This was an unequivocal failure, and I hope every person in that organization is embarrassed by it today, tomorrow, and until they get it right.