Dwyane Wade, Lebron James and the Miami Heat aren’t the first athletes to use a photo to make a statement.
Gold medal swimmer Amanda Beard did it to much less fanfare four years ago in Beijing when she unveiled a nude poster of herself in front of an American flag in an anti-fur protest at the Olympics.
The Chinese weren’t happy about it, showing up at the hotel and shutting down a press conference before it began. Beard ended up displaying the poster in an impromptu gathering outside the athletes’ village, while police and security officials looked on.
Wade, James and the Heat faced no such problems. LeBron James posted a picture Friday that showed the team wearing hoodies, with each of the players’ heads bowed and hands in pockets—putting the image in front of his millions of Twitter followers.
Later that night, the Heat took the court in Detroit with slogans honoring slain teenager Trayvon Martin written on their shoes.
It was simple, yet dramatic. And it accomplished what Wade, James and others wanted—to bring even more attention to a case that has sparked a nationwide outcry.
“You never know, that could be your kid,” James said. “As leaders and as role models we’re happy we can shed the light on a situation we feel isn’t right.”
If it seems personal to the Heat, that’s because it is. James and Wade are both the fathers of two sons, and they played in the All-Star game on the same night when Martin—a Black 17-year-old wearing a hoodie as he walked to a family home after buying some iced tea and candy—was shot to death by a community watch volunteer a few miles from Orlando’s Amway Arena.
The more they heard and read about the case, the more outrageous it seemed. The more they thought about it, the more they wanted their voices heard.
Nothing wrong with that, unless the slogans on their shoes draw attention from David Stern’s uniform police for violating the NBA’s strict guidelines. Even admirable, if you subscribe to the theory that they could be making enemies—or cost themselves shoe sales—by inserting themselves into a controversial case.
If Wade and James were making a statement, though, they made a very careful one. Unlike the NBA players’ union, they didn’t call for the resignation of the police chief in the Florida community where Martin was shot to death, or demand the immediate arrest of the person who shot him.
Instead, they talked as fathers with sons who ask for hoodies for Christmas. They talked as Black men who have every right to wear hoodies.
And they talked about their hope that justice would be done.
They used their platform as NBA superstars to deliver a message from the heart. And they got it right.
They weren’t the only ones, of course. People posed Friday in hoodies on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and around the nation. President Barack Obama even weighed in, urging Americans to “do some soul searching” and saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Still, Wade and James could have left it to others to make the case. Their job is to entertain and there are perils associated with taking a stand on anything more controversial than what flavor of Gatorade they prefer.
Others before them had spoken out on the issues of the day, and paid the price.
Muhammad Ali was hated by millions for refusing his draft induction during the Vietnam War and it cost him three years in the prime of his career. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were ostracized for years for giving the Black power salute on the medal platform in the 1968 Olympics.
Tiger Woods was so afraid of alienating any of his sponsors or fans that he sidestepped for years any questions about social inequities in golf.
It’s easy to play ball and make millions of dollars and leave the real world to others. And that’s usually what we want our heroes to do because sports offers an escape, a time to forget about the problems of our time.
This is different in a lot of ways. The fact Wade and James spoke out publicly underscores just how personal the issue is. The fact they did it so well underscores how much thought was behind it.
They’re famous, sure. But they’re Black men with sons first, horrified like so many others that something as innocent as a walk through a neighborhood or a choice of clothing could lead to a death.
“I’m thinking about my son, thinking about how easy something like that could happen,” Wade said.
That’s the message they wanted to deliver. And that’s a message any parent—Black or White—can understand.