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In NBA, Free Agency Matters and Police Violence Doesn't


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In NBA, Free Agency Matters and Police Violence Doesn't

Chris Schneck

Basketball journalists missed another chance to expose police violence yesterday, their biggest press day of the year. On the first day of free agency, NBA teams committed to pay players $1.4 billion. With every new contract signed, Twitter quaked and FaceBook roared. Journalists rushed to break news, but felt no urgency to discuss Thabo Sefolosha, his broken leg, and the police officer who hit him. 

The guy who guarded LeBron in the NBA Finals won the MVP Award. The player who was supposed to guard LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals had a cast on his leg because the police beat him. 

Three months later, the facts remain unchanged: New York police beat an unarmed black man, and then arrested him for obstruction of a governmental function, despite the nearest crime scene being 120 feet away from the actual arrest. It might be hard to visualize 120 feet; a regulation basketball court is 94 feet from one basket to the other. 

The police broke Thabo Sefolosha's leg and fractured his career, and no one seems to care. And, even more remarkable, Sefolosha predicted this would happen, and no one seems to appreciate tragedy in his prophecy.

Seven months ago, the nine-year pro got caught in the middle of the protests for Eric Garner during a stop in NYC. He voiced his support for the movement on Twitter, and punctuated his tweet with two harbingers: #ICantBreath #ICouldBeNext. 

That was December; this was April: 

I will simply say that I am in great pain, have experienced a significant injury and that the injury was caused by the police.
— Thabo Sefolosha, April 14, 2015 on his season-ending injury

On the evening of April 8, Sefolosha could breath, but he couldn’t stand. The official police complaint alleges that an officer arrested Sefolosha and his Hawks teammate Pero Antic after they refused to comply with requests to disperse from the crime scene. The police complaint goes on to allege that Sefolosha “[ran] in an aggressive manner towards the direction” of a police officer.

Sefolosha is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York, and has made it clear that his attorneys have encouraged him to stay silent for the time being. 

Eyewitness accounts and video documentation conflict dramatically with the content of the police statement. 

In response to this story, and the astonishing lack of coverage, Dave Zirin penned an incredible piece attributing the relative silence to the ways in which the risk-adverse media police themselves. He argues that the media censor themselves in an effort to protect the police and police supporters.

I agree with him: there are not enough page views for a sports journalist to risk deflating the bouncing ball of sports escapism. If people wanted to become more mindful of race relations in this country, they would flip to CNN not ESPN. Sports exist for entertainment, not enlightenment. Sports journalists know and respect this demarcation.

The media’s lack of coverage, however, is not just self-serving; it fits into the broader fabric of race relations in this country. Even with the protests in Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri, a large percentage of America believes that if a black man is arrested he is also guilty. Why else would prosecutors select all-white juries to try black defendants? The same logic follows that if Sefolosha went to a nightclub and stayed out to four o’clock in the morning, he was guilty in the court of public opinion long before the police beat him up. 

On the one hand, the beating that Sefolosha represents the next chapter in the anthology of Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. On the other, “in calling his shot,” Sefolosha joins a sports tradition of predicting the future. 

Just as Babe Ruth pointed over the outfield wall and Joe Namath brashly guaranteed a Super Bowl victory, Sefolosha predicted that he could be next. 

His prediction, however, has not worked its way into the mythology of sports culture. When reports conflict and an unarmed black man ends up on the ground with a police officer still standing, it just isn’t as surprising as a home run or Super Bowl victory.