Etan Thomas on the power of activism

The 2018 NBA postseason has just wrapped up. This is the platform that has created historic basketball moments, such as Damian Lillard’s game-winning 3-pointer that advanced the Portland Trail Blazers past the Houston Rockets in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. It can also be a different platform altogether: If you actually win the NBA Championship, such as the 2017 Golden State Warriors did, you run the risk of being uninvited to the White House by the president of the United States. (There was no invite from Donald trump following their 2018 win, either.)

Etan Thomas, a former NBA player, activist and author, knows about the NBA postseason atmosphere first-hand. Like the Warriors, Thomas also knows what it’s like to be treated in a negative manner for taking a stance against social injustice.

In his newly released book, We Matter: Athletes and Activism, Thomas covers a wide range of topics at the intersection of sports and social justice, including NCAA amateurism and the coverage of women in sports. Interviews with prominent sports figures – such as Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and sports commentator Jemele Hill – personalize these topics.

During Thomas’ time in the NBA – including his seven years with the Washington Wizards – his activism spanned denouncing the Iraq War, advocating for racial justice and assisting Hurricane Katrina victims. Today, in the NBA, plenty of athletes are standing for similar causes. For example, the Sacramento Kings organization has supported the family of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African-American killed by the Sacramento police, in numerous ways. Responses to those who speak out can be challenging. After Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant spoke about social issues, for example, news anchor Laura Ingraham told them to “shut up and dribble” during NBA’s All Star weekend.

In this interview, Evan Thomas speaks to Street Roots about his new book, athlete activism and his interviews with the families of unarmed victims of police violence.

Having interviewed athlete activists from past generations to the modern day, what can be said about the progress from then to now?

I would say that not a lot has changed. The same way the media and mainstream America told Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali to “stay in their place” or “be grateful” or “how dare they complain about what’s wrong with society” is the same way Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Eric Reid and others are currently told to “shut up and play” or encouraged to have the mentality that athletes should stay in their place and not involve themselves with what is happening in the society and country they live in and are a part of. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It didn’t start with Laura Ingraham. It has been happening for a long time.

You’ve played at the highest level of NCAA basketball at Syracuse University. Can you share your thoughts on amateurism and athletes being compensated?

I spent an entire chapter discussing this topic in We Matter. I interviewed John Wall, Oscar Robertson and, from the Fab Five, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King so we could delve into this topic and dissect it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also provided a lot of commentary on this subject.

Let me say this: I cherished my time at Syracuse University. I met my wife, graduated with a degree in business management, and developed friendships that I will have for the rest of my life. However, from purely an economic perspective, Syracuse benefited greatly from my four years there. The NCAA is a billion-dollar industry – with a capital “B.” Maybe back in the day when there wasn’t as much money being generated, maybe it was a little more of a trade-off. But now, it’s not even close.

Of course, college athletes should be compensated. They are able to pay everyone else associated with the athletic department no matter if it’s a revenue-generating sport or not, but can’t pay the players? No coaches are working for free. No trainers or media people or compliance people or anyone. They can come up with a system if they wanted to, but the problem is they don’t want to. The system is working just how the NCAA wants it to, so nothing will change unless they are forced to change.

When it comes to activism in the NBA, what has changed from the time you played in the league to now?

I think social media has changed the flexibility and freedom of athletes speaking out. Now, they don’t have to worry about going through a media outlet and whether that media outlet will properly convey their message or misquote them or even choose to run their story, like I did. Now, they can utilize their own social media. As Dwyane Wade told me in We Matter: “With social media being as powerful as it is, you become, in essence, a reporter. So, it’s hard for someone to tell you not to say things that you want on your social media platform. You can’t be in the position that LeBron is in, that Melo [Carmelo Anthony] is in, and that myself and CP [Chris Paul] are in, and really care about criticism.”

For athletes who may want to become activists but don’t know what it takes to be one, what are some necessary tools needed to make the transition?

Just to do your research and know what you are talking about and be prepared for the criticism that is going to follow. You also have to be able to defend your position because certain portions of the media are going to attempt to discredit you personally and make you out to be a buffoon who has no business speaking on this topic, just as Laura Ingraham attempted to do with LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

What it like to speak with families of victims of gun violence in relation to cop killings, racism, systemic injustices, etc.?

Those were the most difficult interviews I have ever done in my life. I spoke to Emerald Snipes, who is Eric Garner’s daughter; I interviewed the mother and sister of Philando Castile, Valerie and Alysza Castile; I interviewed Jahvaris Fulton, brother of Trayvon Martin, and Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher. These conversations were literally heartbreaking, but I think they were important to document for many reasons.

People have forgotten what these protests were about. Somehow, it has transformed into being about the military or the flag, but those weren’t the reasons Kaepernick listed for him taking a knee. It was about the constant killings at the hands of the police of unarmed black men and women without any form of accountability from the police. When D-Wade and LeBron and the entire Miami team wore the hoodies, it was because of the killing of Trayvon Martin. I went and spoke to Trayvon’s brother Jahvaris about the impact of that.

Russell Westbrook spoke out after the killing of Terence Crutcher and I spoke to Terence’s sister Tiffany about the impact of that as well. The entire WNBA had their media blackout and protested after the back-to-back killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and Philando’s sister Alysza spoke so passionately about what it felt to her; seeing that. And although these interviews were extremely difficult to do, they were important to really show what these protests are all about.

Courtesy of Street Roots /






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