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Parlor Talk: The Invaluable Role of Professional Sports in Society

Posted by Kyle Baranko on April 29, 2015 at 10:00 PM

Professional sports are an entertainment industry. People all over the world treat athletes like celebrities and spend endless hours following their favorite teams for the sake of relaxation. We look to sports as a way to release ourselves from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; watching the game allows us to disconnect from the troubles of the world. However, athletics and current events are quite intertwined, often reflecting the very news we wish to escape. One recent event involving the National Basketball Association illustrates a fundamental social problem that has dominated current events for the past several months.

Over the past year, the relationship between racism and police brutality has been the subject of heated controversy. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and other recent victims have sparked nationwide protest and fueled public debate about the existence of inconspicuous racism in America. These current events have warranted substantial publicity and culminated in the mysterious injury of Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. An integral part of the team’s championship aspirations, Sefolosha was out at a nightclub in New York City during the early morning hours of April 8th. He was charged with obstructing the establishment of a crime scene, in which fellow NBA player Chris Copeland was stabbed in a separate incident. The police report says that Sefolosha aggressively approached the cops and adamantly resisted arrest; however, eyewitness accounts and video evidence contradict some details of the report. In one video, a cop is clearly depicted swinging his baton at the struggling victim who is repeatedly telling officers to “calm down.” Sefolosha declined to comment on the specifics during his press conference, only stating “I will simply say that I am in great pain, have experienced a significant injury and that the injury was caused by the police.”

This scene paints a picture all too familiar to activists around the country. From one perspective, Sefolosha was an innocent bystander who was a victim of unwarranted aggression by the police. Authorities argue that the victim actively interfered with the crime scene and behaved in a combative manner. Whatever the truth may be, the fact remains that police decidedly injured a black man who happens to be a professional basketball player. Just like in the cases of Brown and Garner, video and witnesses provide ample evidence for activists to make a strong case that the violence was unnecessary and could possibly be racially driven. Unlike the previous cases, the victim lived to tell his side of the story and is taking legal action. The impact of the scuffle sets off a different wave of repercussions, impacting some of the same activists from previous cases but also the average NBA fan that had previously overlooked racism’s pernicious presence in modern society. Sefolosha will miss the playoffs and greatly damage Atlanta’s title hopes, as he provides stout defense on the wing and was a major contributor to the team’s franchise-record 60 win season. The incident undermines the hard work of a team that could have brought great joy to a city that hasn’t won a championship since 1958. The most frustrating part of the situation is that the injury was completely irrelevant to basketball and was entirely preventable; anyone who follows the NBA can tell you the agony injected into a fan base when an important player succumbs to an injury completely unrelated to the action on a court.

The incident put a damper on Hawks fans but also sheds a new light on the recent racial turmoil. Sefolosha is a large black man, and we will never know how police would have responded to the situation if he were white and average size. He clearly thinks he was a victim of unnecessary police brutality and thankfully lived to tell his story and seek legal action, unlike Brown and Garner. The fact that Sefolosha is essentially a celebrity and not mired in poverty brings attention to an otherwise mundane occurrence; activists protest because racially driven brutality occurs all the time and even in situations that don’t result in a shooting or choking death. Sefolosha’s fame brings a relatable example to a situation that is often dismissed in favor of more dramatic events, such as the fatalities this fall.

Sports have a way of easily illustrating the best and worst society has to offer. Jackie Robison broke the racial barrier of professional sports by bravely and openly challenging long-established social norms over half a century ago. This movement was a momentous achievement that served to combat the blatant racism of the segregated United States. In contemporary society, racism is more discrete and less discernible. The impact of Sefolosha’s injury is not as obvious as the Robinson event, but it reminds us that racism still shows itself in subtle ways. He was another victim of the same racially driven police brutality we’ve all been hearing about, but this time, it was expressed in an unconventional, and arguably more relatable, manner. It is in this way that professional sports reflect social trends, and often-fundamental problems, in contemporary society.

This spring, when NBA fans turn on the TV, they will likely opt to watch the excitement of the NBA playoffs rather than the dreariness of CNN. They will look for an escape from the typical news story depicting another black man being shot by a white cop in another poor neighborhood they’ve relentlessly heard about in every dimension of media possible. But as they watch the Atlanta Hawks struggle to stop the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, hopefully they will wonder: where is that one tenacious wing defender who can slow down Lebron James?

Categories: Culture: Anthropology

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