Widgets Magazine

Golub: Emmett Till and hoops

I wouldn’t usually write about race the day of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Then again, the name Emmett Till doesn’t usually make it into a basketball news conference. A paper on the civil rights movement, a discussion of race in a history classroom – these are places one could expect to hear Till’s name.

Yet, there was LeBron, explaining on Wednesday how someone had vandalized his L.A. home by spray-painting the N-word. “I think back to Emmett Till’s mom, actually,” LeBron says, talking about how this incident affected him. “It’s kind of one of the first things I thought of.”

WHAT?! What is going on in this country that would make LeBron James, heir to the throne, potential competitor for the title of GOAT, invoke the lynching of Emmett Till the day before the NBA Finals?

The finals are a chance to reflect on the season. This matchup comes as many predicted at the start of the year; the league’s two “super teams” going head-to-head for their third straight final matchup. All according to plan.

Someone vandalizing LeBron’s home on the eve of Game 1, though, is not part of that plan. While there is no good time for someone to be racist, it is fitting that on basketball’s biggest stage, its brightest star is forced to talk about America’s burning issue. If the finals are a look back at the season, they are incomplete without some talk of race.

It was only a few weeks ago that Adam Jones, centerfielder for the Orioles, dealt with racial epithets hurled from fans at Fenway Park. Boston isn’t the only place with racist fans, but throughout history they sure have a lot of them (yet another reason why Boston sports teams are the worst). Sports, an entertainment industry, is not insulated from racism. Nothing is.

Many people watch basketball as a reprieve. To them, ball is a break from the concerns of regular life. For two-and-a-half hours, ball is life. Then, someone yells something at Jones or tags LeBron’s house and suddenly we are snapped back into reality. As awful as it can be for racism to seep even into our fun distractions, good on athletes like Jones and LeBron for talking about it to the media.

NBA players in particular have spoken out on racial issues, from the photo the Heat took all wearing hoodies to honor Trayvon Martin to the teams that warmed up in I Can’t Breathe shirts following the killing of Eric Garner to the Banana Boat Bros, LeBron, Melo, Wade and CP3, opening the ESPYs with a speech addressing racism.

As a sidenote: that speech, and his subsequent meeting with police and community members in LA, made me love Melo more than anything he has done on the court for NY. Except maybe for when he dropped 42-17-6 on Boston in the playoffs.

Now, it feels farfetched for LeBron to connect his plight to that of Till. My initial reaction (and again, I have some strong bias against LeBron) was that Bron was being melodramatic. Emmett Till’s death proved to be an inflection point of the civil rights movement, whereas LeBron getting called the N-word doesn’t carry the same weight.

The more I thought about it though, good on LeBron for mentioning Till. A star athlete helping history into the spotlight and reviving discussion on racism: that’s big time. I think what he was saying was that he wants to continue Mamie Till’s legacy of exposing to the world the racism in America. Just because athletes are entertainers doesn’t mean they can’t be civil rights advocates, too.

It would be great if LeBron took some time to dive deeply into what this means to him, instead of generalizing it as indicative of “what’s going on,” (as he said in his news conference). Other athletes can join as well. If this episode shows anything, it’s that athletes still encounter racism all the time. If they bring this real problem into conversation, fans are going to have to work harder to avoid thinking about racism. In my opinion, that’s a good thing.


Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.