Athlete activism: Magic Johnson pleased athletes using platform, voice for peaceful protest

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

By Melissa Murphy


NEW YORK _ Magic Johnson praised recent activism by professional athletes on Tuesday and called for more conversation among government, law enforcement and black leaders.

The basketball Hall of Famer made his remarks a day after Cleveland star LeBron James and other players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts before the Cavaliers’ 110-88 victory at the Brooklyn Nets.

“They’re incredible stars that people will listen to,” Johnson said at Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Grand Central Terminal. “I’m so happy they’re socially conscious … and they want to use their platform and their voice.”

James, Kyrie Irving and four Brooklyn players said they were supporting the family of Eric Garner, who died in July after a New York police officer placed him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Kobe Bryant and several of his teammates with the Lakers warmed up in the shirts on Tuesday night.

A recording of Garner’s arrest showed him gasping “I can’t breathe” during the fatal encounter, and thousands have protested a grand jury decision not to indict the officer since the announcement last Wednesday.

“When you’re African-American, you grow up understanding that you can be next,” Johnson said. “So I think they’re doing it in a peaceful and mindful way.”

Chicago point guard Derrick Rose wore the same shirt Saturday night before the Bulls hosted the Golden State Warriors. Five St. Louis Rams players trotted onto the field in a “Hands up, don’t shoot!” gesture before a Nov. 30 game against the Oakland Raiders in a show of solidarity for protesters and the family of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

A grand jury on Nov. 24 declined to indict a police officer in the shooting death of Brown, sparking nationwide protests.

“The great thing about it is nobody is saying that every police officer is bad,” Johnson said. “The majority are great and they protect us. They put their lives on the line. And not every young African-American kid is bad, either.”

Johnson said he didn’t have negative experiences with police growing up in Michigan, “but my friends had issues and my loved ones had issues. So, you’ve always been affected, even if it wasn’t you directly.”

“Young African-American males, it’s not just the killing, but also being abused and being incarcerated for not doing something wrong,” he said. “So we’ve got to correct that.”

Johnson, a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said beyond the protests, the next step is to find “common ground” among citizens and police. He would like to see a meeting of community and government leaders early next year.

“Leaders from all sides, the African-American, law enforcement and government side have to come together and say ‘Hey, how can we make this better for all of us?”’ Johnson said.

The three-time NBA MVP attended the Steiner Sports event Tuesday in Grand Central, where there has been recent “die-ins” to draw attention to fatal encounters with police. Among those in attendance were Mookie Wilson, Larry Johnson, Frank Robinson and Dennis Rodman.

Robinson, who won baseball’s Triple Crown in 1966 and became the first black manager in the major leagues in 1975, said he didn’t participate in the athlete activism during his playing days.

“I didn’t get involved in it, my job was to play baseball,” Robinson said, “and that’s what I did.”

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