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Last year for Martin Luther King Jr Day, I interviewed a group of WNBA players along with Eric Garner’s daughter, Emerald. We spoke about their campaign to unseat Republican Kelly Loeffler, who had been part of the leadership group of the Atlanta Dream, from the US Senate. With the players’ help, the outside candidate Raphael Warnock beat Loeffler giving Democrats control of the Senate.
That election in Georgia was an excellent example of how athletes can cause real change. But, as we mark MLK Day on Monday, there are plenty of signs the struggle is far from over. We’ve just passed the first anniversary of the 6 January riots, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. The subsequent investigation into the riots was a chance to address the extremism that is poisoning US society. But Republicans have attempted to block the inquiry, while politicians and the rightwing media who fanned the flames have not been held accountable.
We have also just watched the sentencing of the three white men who murdered a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, in cold blood while he was out jogging. And while justice was eventually served, we should remember that prosecutors failed to act until two months after the killing, when video of the murder was leaked, touching off international outcry.
It’s fair to say that America still has a long way to go until it is a safe and just place for all.
WNBA players caused real change last year in Georgia and their NBA peers made an impact after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook, Jaylen Brown, Enes Kanter and the Ball brothers were among the dozens of NBA players who attended and spoke at Black Lives Matter marches. Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul founded the NBA Social Change Fund, which aims to support critical issues in the Black community.
But now it’s time to take it a step further. And the NBA could and should use the WNBA as a blueprint to follow. I have even identified a place where they could make an important impact: Texas. Lee Merritt, who served as one of the lawyers for the Arbery family, is running for attorney general in the second-most populous state in the United States. He would be the most powerful legal figure in a state where battles over racial justice, policing, immigration and voting rights are being fought every day.
In my new book, Police Brutality And White Supremacy: The Fight Against American Traditions, I interviewed politicians, athletes, activists and educators as well as victims (and their family members) of police brutality. Many of these people said fighting for laws to be changed is a vital part of changing the status quo. And while many have grown understandably tired of the voting process, local elections stand as one of the best methods to take a serious step in the right direction of justice.
And there is no doubt Merritt is committed to justice. “The reason I am moving into the political spectrum is … that we still exist in the deadliest police culture in the modern world. Other countries have done it better. Other countries that we compare ourselves with. We’re in last place in terms of policing our communities without resorting to violence,” he told me on my podcast, The Rematch.
“We need a better policy, and we’ve talked about it long enough. Now that we know the truth, let’s stop turning a blind eye to it and pursue policies that will actually lead to long term systemic change. And I believe that means having constitutional attorneys like myself assume the role of attorney general. And not only myself but Letitia James in New York, Keith Ellison in Minnesota, Kwame Raoul in Illinois.”
He also acknowledged the tremendous role the NBA could play in achieving real change.
“Members of the NBA have the opportunity, they have the position to really have an impact on how we pursue policy not only in the state of Texas but throughout the country and the voices of the NBA are critically important to that,” he said.
“We’re asking for the NBA, and everyone else with a platform to join us in this movement because we can really change this country for the better.”
He has a great point. Last year, WNBA players showed the power of athletes’ voices. Imagine what prominent Texas NBA players, executives and coaches such as Mark Cuban, Jason Kidd, Gregg Popovich, Tim Hardaway Jr and Luka Doncic (or indeed NFL players like Dallas Cowboys stars Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott) could do if they endorsed Merritt?
Slogans on jerseys calling for justice are all well and good. But if NBA players could make a difference in the election for a role as important as Texas attorney general, it would be huge a boost in the fight for justice in the United States.
Etan Thomas played in the NBA from 2000 through 2011. He is a published poet, activist and motivational speaker