Critical Corner – #ShutUpAndDribble

Beneel Babaei

Fireworks, barbecue, red, white, blue, stars, stripes – many things have long been emblematic of the Fourth of July; for basketball fans everywhere, however, Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors in free agency, penned in a now infamous article for The Players’ Tribune entitled My Next Chapter on July 4, 2016, is perhaps equally characteristic of the date. His decision shocked the conscious of the sports world, sending ripples across every form of media one could think of for months, years even, to come.

Kevin Durant has been labeled a treasonous disloyal traitor. He has been lambasted by people from far and near of all different creeds and backgrounds. He has been called a snake, a cupcake, and much worse. All this for choosing to leave an organization that drafted him to their team in the vibrant city of Seattle, Washington, only to promptly pluck him from there and place him in the middle (no really, smack dab in the middle) of Oklahoma before deciding to let some of the best players in the world walk right out of their organization. All this for choosing to move, as a single young adult, to the technological capital of the world, nestled in the sunny confines of Northern California, while investing in tech companies and furthering his love for photography. All this for closely deliberating with his family, friends, business agent, and potential new teammates before making an educated career decision. All this for choosing to play in a new basketball system that encourages ball movement and defense and afforded him an opportunity to win consistently on the biggest stages of them all. All this for making a choice.

July 4, 2017 is a lesser known date in basketball history. Ask even the most avid fans and they might scratch their heads. This was the date that Gordon Hayward penned his article in The Players’ Tribune announcing his departure from the team that drafted him in Thank You, Utah. The parallels do not stop at the date: Gordon Hayward chose to leave an organization he had played for throughout the entirety of his career in order to move to a vibrant city in Boston and play on a top team in a system that emphasized ball movement and defense, giving him a chance to compete on the biggest stages of them all.

The similarities are aplenty but so are the differences: the Golden State Warriors had set an NBA record for games won the year prior, Gordon Hayward, though comparable in position and even in more statistical measures than one might think, is not the utter superstar that Kevin Durant is, Gordon Hayward did not lose to the same team in the playoffs the year before, etc. In all, though, one difference stands out among the rest. Two grown men made two adult decisions about their careers – and only one literally and proverbially had his jersey burnt to a crisp. It is worth noting that only one was black.

Recently, Laura Ingraham, an anchor on Fox News, responded to Kevin Durant and Lebron James’ criticism of President Donald Trump on her segment The Ingraham Angle, saying “must they run their mouths like that?… This is what happens when you attempt to leave high school a year early to join the NBA. Keep the political commentary to yourself. Or as someone once said, shut up and dribble.” (emphasis added). Ingraham has since responded to condemnation of her comments as racist, declaring that there was no racial intent. While it would be futile to attempt to discern whether or not such mens rea existed, one thing is clear: many circles of society view our athletes, and particularly our black athletes, as mere artifices of our entertainment. This is why many feel uncomfortable when athletes of color take thoughtful stances on social issues ranging from graffiti racism on their own doorsteps to the acts and omissions of the commander in chief. To be sure, Ingraham said aloud what many think: shut up and dribble, as you are merely a black athlete.

Kevin Durant and Lebron James are family-oriented philanthropists and businessmen, who have enjoyed success in their field that most of us could only dream of in our own. Each of them will go down in history as one of the best players to pick up a ball, and yes, to dribble one – but they should not be required to be solely that. They should feel empowered to use the platforms they have to promote social change as many before them have done. Moreover, they should be treated the same way that Gordon Hayward is treated when making controversial career decisions.

Athletes of color should be afforded the same leeway in making “political” commentary as the average civilian and should be afforded the same discretion in making career decisions as the average employee. One can make strong cases for race-blind reasons that they are not, but it is at least worth acknowledging that the color of their skin is a factor in societal reactions. We as a society should work to acknowledge both our conscious and subconscious judgment of the actions of athletes of color, and we should be the ones to shut up and let them dribble, talk, or move across the country as they please.