By Michael Kinney
Ever since the shooting death of Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16 by a Tulsa police officer, the eyes of the world have focused on Oklahoma. The death of the unarmed black man at the hands of Betty Shelby in the middle of the street was caught on a dash cam video and by a hovering helicopter.
While it took a couple of days for the nation to discover what took place in Tulsa, it quickly stoked the fire of the national debate surrounding police, the national anthem, the American flag, police brutality and the alarming rate of young black men being killed by police.
This version of the debate began when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the decision to sit then kneel during the playing of the national anthem. It started with one athlete, but has since spread to other sports at every level of competition.
With the NBA reporting to training camp last week, it was basketball’s turn to take center stage.
That includes Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who was asked at media day about the shooting death in Tulsa and the non-violent protests Kaepernick started.
“I think it’s very important — more importantly, I think a lot of people don’t realize the families of all these young men, their mothers, their brothers, sisters, uncles, I think it’s very important that we understand how important the families feel about the situations,” Westbrook said.
According to data compiled by The Guardian, 223 unarmed citizens were killed by law enforcement officers. Even though blacks account for only 13 percent of the population, they made up more than 33 percent of the deaths.
Conversely, Caucasians make up 62 percent of the population and 45 percent of the unarmed killings in 2015.
“And me being an African-American athlete and having a voice,” Westbrook said, “I think it’s important that I make a stand and know that something has to change. I think I don’t have an answer. Obviously nobody has an answer. If that’s the case, it would have been (fixed), but I think it’s important that we figure out what we can do to help improve what’s going on.”
Over the past few decades, it would be hard to point out a time when so many pro athletes had decided to use their popularities to speak up on social issues. In the ’80s and’90s, the example was set by players such as Michael Jordan that it was best to keep their mouths shut as to not to offend potential shoe buyers. And as branding became a popular phrase being thrown around, players refused to make public stands.
But that has seemingly changed. There have been other instances in the past few seasons where NBA players have dipped their toes into social activism such as with Trayvon Martin. But nothing like we are seeing now as super stars and role players starting to speak out.
For Cleavland’s LeBron James, it’s the fear he has for his own son’s safety that is foremost in his mind when he talks about the need for the conversation to continue about police brutality.
”You tell your kids if you just apply and if you just listen to the police that they will be respectful and it will work itself out,” James told the Associated Press. ”You see these videos that continue to come out, and it’s a scary-ass situation that if my son calls me and says that he’s been pulled over that I’m not that confident that things are going to go well and my son is going to return home.”
Westbrook has never been one to speak out on topics. While he has done immense work in the community, he had chosen to keep his opinions to himself.
But the most recent deaths of men of color by the police has seemingly pushed him to a point where he feels a need to do more.
“I think for me personally, me growing up in inner city and being able to see different things on a night-in and day-in, day-out basis,” Westbrook said, “that hit home for me just being able to see different things that’s going on globally and getting an opportunity for other people across the world to be able to see it and now I think it’s getting to a point where obviously there’s something that needs to be changed on that aspect and you know, I’m going to use my voice as much as possible being able to relay that message.”
However, Westbrook hasn’t said if he or any of his teammates will follow the same path of Kaepernick and kneel during the national anthem during NBA games this season. Yet, he does expect some type of demonstration to be made throughout the league.
“Obviously some players feel differently than others because I think based on how people were brought up, where they were born, how we were raised,” Westbrook said, “a lot of things comes into play, you start talking about political views and different things going on around the country. But I think different guys, some may stand up, some may not, but it will be interesting to see.”