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Between the Lines: Trayvon Martin and the NBA

Basketball commissioner David Stern's "red state appeal" initiative leads to exactly the kind of racial profiling seen in the vigilante shooting in Florida.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

When LeBron James announced that he would be "taking his talents" to South Beach, he probably wasn't referring to his skills with social media, let alone social justice. But he could have been.

Admittedly, it's far too easy to criticize "The King." He's been called "The Whore of Akron" for not staying with his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's a nonstop highlight film who has yet to win a single championship ring (let alone two, three, four, five, or six). He wants to be like both Nike icon Michael "Republicans buy sneakers, too" Jordan and athletic pioneer for social justice Muhammad Ali.

"But James did something last week that didn't allow for any of that murkiness, gathering his teammates for a symbolic, bowed-head-in-hoodies photo in support of murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin—a team photo unlike any ever taken," Dan Le Batard wrote in The Miami Herald. "It was only the kind of statement Muhammad Ali and John Carlos used to make—and one that Michael Jordan never did."

The photo received much attention, and prompted other athletes to speak out in support of Trayvon Martin and against the practice of racial profiling.

James wrote "R.I.P. Trayvon Martin" on his sneakers during the game in Detroit (suburban Auburn Hills, really). Heat teammate and co-perennial MVP candidate Duane Wade noted that last Christmas, all his sons wanted hoodies. Even the NBA Players' Association took a stand.

"The NBPA is saddened and horrified by the tragic murder of Mr. Martin and joins in the chorus of calls from across the nation for the prompt arrest of George Zimmerman," its statement reads, noting the "racial bias in this matter and others."

Connections between the Trayvon Martin murder and the NBA abound. The Miami Heat were Martin's favorite team. He was getting a snack during halftime in the televised NBA All-Star Game when he was shot and killed. Martin, like the overwhelming majority of NBA players, was an African-American male. And even after his death, he has received round-the-clock criticism for wearing a hoodie, criticism that is far too reminiscent of the NBA Dress Code.

The NBA, for its part, represents the best and worst with regard to race relations and sports in the U.S. In an age when you can count the NFL's African-American head coaches on one hand, and the number of African-Americans playing baseball diminishes with each year we celebrate Jackie Robinson's legacy, the NBA has a far higher percentage of African-American coaches and general managers than its professional sports league counterparts. It is a relationship that has benefited the NBA at least as much as African-American athletes and team managers.

In the early 1980s, Commissioner David Stern marketed the then-struggling NBA with an urban image that allowed his league to ride the birth of hip-hop out of sports mediocrity. Stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan led the way to the league's golden age, when the NBA was arguably the most popular sport league in America. Lately, however, the appropriately named Commissioner Stern seems to be looking at his league through the eyes of Dr. Frankenstein, wondering how he can reign in his monstrous creation.

Several years ago, the Commissioner hired Matthew Dowd, former public relations specialist for the Bush Administration, to give the NBA more "red state appeal." Soon after, Stern instituted a corporate dress code for all players sitting on the bench, explaining, "We want our players to look like the fans buying tickets to the games." Fans, apparently, like Geraldo Rivera.

Many have questioned the motive behind the dress code. "David Stern has made it very clear that the league is going to be hypersensitive to what he refers to as gangster culture, or hip-hop culture. He uses the words very interchangeably, without realizing how profoundly offensive that is," notes Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation. "When you break it all down to thuggish behavior, it becomes a form of racial profiling. We determine that you're a criminal element based on the way that you dress, or the way that you talk."

It seems absurd that George Zimmerman would feel threatened by Trayvon Martin wearing a hoodie. Or does it, David Stern?

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