Legends Of Sport: Etan Thomas on Athletes and Activism

Former NBA player and author Etan Thomas shares his thoughts on his latest book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism. Thomas was the first round and 12th overall draft pick by the Dallas Mavericks, and published his first book when he was a member of the Washington Wizards. Thomas played for the Oklahoma City Thunder and ended his NBA career with the Atlanta Hawks. He has continued to publish books and work with notable athletes and activists. Thomas was part of President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative and co-authored Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge. He and Andy discuss the recent increase in athlete activism and what the future of sports could look like. 

“Starting with Colin Kaepernick there’s been a resurgence of athlete activism. I interviewed Eric Reid and Tommie Smith, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade. I want to understand what motivated them to use their platform in that way,” Thomas said. He added that one of the goals of We Matter is to motivate younger athletes to continue the tradition of activism.

Thomas credits his mother with sparking his interest in activism and education.

“My mother was a school teacher so we had a whole different set of learning that we had to do outside of school. She would give me book reports on different people. I remember she bought me the Kareem video and I read his autobiography. It really delved into how he was more than an athlete. That type of education that I got when I was young,” Thomas said.

In addition to learning outside of school, Thomas was involved in the speech and debate team as well as basketball. After an encounter with the police, he wrote an original oratory that captured the attention and became the catalyst for his path to raise awareness about systemic racism.

On the way to a basketball game, Thomas was pulled over because police mistakenly thought they recognized him from a mug shot.

“It was the busiest place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was on my way to an actual basketball game. I was detained for like 45 minutes. Back in those days, whenever they would stop a black or brown man, you’d have to get out of the car and sit on the ground. That was just routine. You just had to sit on the ground while they do whatever they’re doing. I was so upset by it. Later on, they found out they recognized me from playing for Booker T. Washington [High School]. Then they just all got in the cars and left.”

“I wrote a speech about that. That’s when it just kind of went everywhere. People started coming up to me, like, ‘thank you for saying everything what you’re saying because they listen to you say it, but it happens all the time. But nobody’s listening to us.’ That’s when the light bulb came on. I was like, ‘Oh, just because I play basketball. They listen.’ I made that connection and I just kind of kept doing it for the rest of my career,” Thomas said. 

Thomas uses his platform to draw attention to injustices and start a conversation.

“I was at UPenn and the audience was just about all white males. I like to have dialogue after I’m speaking and one of the students said, ‘Listen, I have to be honest with you, this isn’t my reality. I don’t know this. When I get stopped by the police the main thing that I’m thinking about is how do I get out of this ticket?’ The few black people that were there all started laughing. I said, ‘They’re laughing because that’s so far removed from what we’re thinking, we’re thinking, how do we get out of the situation alive and get home safely? We’re not thinking about how to get out of this ticket. That doesn’t cross our minds at all.’ And those are just the two different realities. But that’s where empathy comes in for someone to say, ‘Okay, even though this isn’t my reality, I can still say that it’s wrong, that it’s their reality.’”

Thomas says he encourages healthy debate around important issues and that people were surprised to hear that athletes inspire their peers as well as fans. 

“There are a lot of athletes right now that have political discussions and debates in locker rooms and people were so surprised. Recently, and I think the new wave has come with the top person, being so vocal and willing to speak out and willing, when you have the top person, then everybody else is inspired. That top person being LeBron James, the way that he has been using his platform, and using his voice, inspires me. We look at the positives of the growth of current athletes using their voices,” Thomas said. 

“The biggest comparison is to the 60s and 70s, 80s. Athletes didn’t have social media platforms, they had to get the word out through the media. Sometimes the media just doesn’t get it right. Do you feel that there could be a negative side to having a platform so big that maybe the right message doesn’t get out?” Bernstein said.

“When you have a platform like that, that means when you say something, people are going to hear it. You have to be even more careful with what you’re actually saying. Anybody can follow you and that’s just that’s a whole different level of power. Not to sound cliche but like Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s the honest truth,” Thomas said. “When you have a platform, you have to either be all the way knowledgeable about it, to present it correctly and accurately or don’t touch it. Because we’re dealing with a topic, as sensitive as somebody who lost their lives to police brutality, you can’t just gloss over it, you have to really do your research. You have to be responsible with your words.”

Thomas has interviewed the families of black people killed by police violence and describes the interviews as some of the most difficult he’s had to conduct.

“I was interviewing Emerald Garner and Tiffany Crutcher. She’s talking about losing her brother to police violence. Emerald was talking about what it means to her to see Kobe Bryant or the entire Lakers team or LeBron James or Derrick Rose wearing the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. She’s saying, ‘Imagine, if every time you turn on the TV, you see somebody justifying why your father deserves to die. Then you see an athlete showing support for your father. It just brings you to tears.’ A lot of people say, ‘Oh, what does wearing a T-shirt mean, but that’s not what you hear from them,’” Thomas said.

Thomas has continued to work with Garner to push for police accountability laws and help others organize.

“She’s just blossomed into this young activist. It’s amazing, she’s pushing, she was meeting with senators, she was getting the Eric Garner law passed…When you see their perseverance in situations like this, they’re not giving up. We can’t give up because they are still fighting for justice, they don’t want that to happen to anybody else. But it’s a draining process, I gotta be honest with you. It’s tough, you hit so many bumps in the roads,” Thomas said.

Six years after Eric Garner’s death, an anti-chokehold bill was passed in New York state. 

The Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act stipulates that any New York police officer who injures or kills somebody through the use of “a chokehold or similar restraint” can be charged with a Class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Despite the lag in justice and police accountability, Thomas says he is optimistic about changing laws.

“In the NBA social change fund, a lot of the focus is police accountability. Right now, it seems as though each department is different, a lot of the times, it’s so difficult to prosecute a policeman if they are, in fact, guilty of doing something incorrectly. That’s kind of shifted focus a little bit towards the actual laws. I just watched the commercial with Michael Jordan and Chris Paul and they’re talking about changing the laws,” Thomas said. “After George Floyd’s murder, this was probably the most that I personally have ever seen of white people protesting across the country. I’m looking at some protests, and some states and some cities, and it’s all white people, no black people at the protests. That is something we could look at as a positive because the country is realizing and seeing that something needs to change. Since then, you’ve had a movement of a lot of people trying to get things right, trying to correct the wrongs…Progress is not going to happen in the time frame that it should have happened because it should have happened a long time ago. We’re already behind the clock.”

In addition to starting a conversation about racial justice and police accountability, Thomas is involved in programs to strengthen families and mentor younger men.

“I was part of President Obama’s fatherhood initiative with Dwayne Wade. Then, after that, My Brother’s Keeper to take responsibility for dealing with younger men. We made it eight years with Obama and it was purposely attempted to be undone by Trump.” Thomas said.

“But we’re resilient. Americans are resilient. Humans are resilient, kids are resilient. Maybe it’ll just be a blip on the American history radar,” Bernstein said. 

Thomas and Bernstein wrap up the conversation with a discussion on the success of the NBA bubble and Thomas shares a personal memory of the late Kobe Bryant. Thomas leaves listeners with a final thought about how athletes can be forces of good.

“I’m really focused on young people, that’s really where my passion is. You’re really blessed to be an athlete, you have power. You can influence positively or negatively. You’re gonna influence one way or the other but you can use that power for good.”

Catch up with Thomas on his podcast, The Rematch, read his latest work on Basketball News, and support young athletes through the Etan Thomas Foundation.

Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast here. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.

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