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More Professional Athletes Starting To Find Their Political Voices

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last night, Lebron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, wore a t-shirt during warm-ups that read I can't breathe - words spoken by Eric Garner while in police custody. Before that it was Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, and just over a week ago, five players of the St. Louis Rams took to the field with their hands up. These protests have been subtle and quiet, but they've been noticed. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, has been watching this unfold and joins us now. And, Dave, start out by explaining exactly how these silent protests fit into the way athletes today express dissent.

DAVE ZIRIN: Now, absolutely, I mean, there has been a definite shift over the last couple of years of athletes breaking away from what's been the norm over the last several decades, which has been accentuating their apolitical-ness in effort to become more of a brand - something that's attractive to sponsors - very much in the model of Michael Jordan, him being kind of the template for all athletes to follow.

CORNISH: At the same time, this is very different from, say, the '60s, '70s, right, when it was hard not to find a socially conscious athlete. What are we seeing today in terms of the ways that these athletes will speak out?

ZIRIN: Well, I think what's so interesting is that in the '60s what you had was a mass social movement off the playing field - you had the black freedom struggle, the antiwar movement, the women's liberation movement - and when those movements got big enough they found expression in the world of sports. That's, I think, the best corollary to today.

I mean, you didn't see this as much in the '80s and '90s because you didn't see the same kinds of movements. What we're seeing from a lot of these athletes and what they're saying is that they feel like the protests that are happening off the field have just become impossible to ignore. And to ignore them would in fact be a political statement unto itself, so they feel like they have to say something.

CORNISH: You talked about the landscape off the field, off the court - what about the sports landscape itself? Are athletes feeling emboldened, right, and that they're able to speak out? And is that because of changing expectations of the athletes or weakened leagues?

ZIRIN: Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with social media, and athletes having access to more ideas on their own time and less of a control over the political discourse in sports by just a couple of members of the sports media - your local hometown columnist who would determine what the terms of political debates were and what was or was not OK for athletes to say. All of that is out the window.

CORNISH: Is part of this the fact that also the leagues themselves that they're not as sort of controlling of the athletes?

ZIRIN: Well, it is interesting that this is happening when you have a new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, who's already being perceived as much less - for lack of a better term - authoritarian than his predecessor David Stern. And I just think that there is a recognition by a lot of the commissioners that they cannot control athletes the way that they used to. Roger Goodell, who heads the NFL, Adam Silver - I mean, both have said that they're not going to be fining NBA or NFL players for going - taking the to court with these political messages, and especially in the NFL, that's very striking. I mean, this is a league that will fine a player for wearing the wrong color shoelaces.

CORNISH: What are you seeing from white athletes? We've talked here about mostly African-American athletes.

ZIRIN: Yeah, I mean, first of all, it's understandable why we would talk about African-American athletes, given that this is a movement against racism, and given the history of African-American athletes from Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, but that being said, I think a lot of people are looking to see if any white athletes will do anything in solidarity.

And one reason why I think a lot of people are looking for that is that if you look at the demonstrations that are taking place, I mean, they're strikingly multiracial. And if Lebron James and Kyrie Irving are going to take a chance and wear these shirts, I mean, wouldn't it be just a good act of sportsmanship and even just being a good teammate if Kevin Love, their teammate, wore one as well?

CORNISH: That's Dave Zirin. He's sports editor at The Nation magazine. Thanks so much for talking with us.

ZIRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.