T-Shirts Turning Tables: Athletes Retain Support For Social Statement Attire

The trends athletes set, whether it be on or off the playing ground, are unquestionably influential in society. From their shoes to their jerseys, we love to incorporate their wardrobe into our own.

Within the past month, athletes have chosen to use their influence on fashion to express their opinions on civil rights issues. Throughout the NBA, athletes have been wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts to make reference to the controversial death of Eric Garner. This past Sunday, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was sporting a black t-shirt with the writing "Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford" upon it. Clearly, it's not a fashion trend these guys are trying to set. Their support for these social issues, however, is loud and clear, and stirring up controversies between the organizations and law enforcement.

This is not the first time that athletes have chosen to speak out about issues they feel strongly about. In 1968, after Tommie Smith won the gold medal and John Carlos won the bronze for the 200-meter race, both athletes chose to display their protests toward the injustices African-American's were facing. Their combination of black gloves, socks and scarfs represented unity, power and pride for black America.

Bill Russell is another athlete who chose to support the social movements he believed in by participating in the March on Washington in 1963 and backing other athletes who felt strongly about the injustices in America, such as Muhammad Ali. Yet whenever an athlete, today or in the past, takes a stance on a social debate, the response is usually one of shock and disbelief that he or she is choosing to voice his or her opinion. And with good reason considering athletes are consistently in the eye of the camera lens and play sports at a professional level. I think the reaction comes from the underlying question why? Why are these athletes choosing to take a stance on social issues?

First, we must remember these guys are human, have thoughts and opinions about the controversies our world faces, and can exercise their right to free speech just like the rest of us. The biggest, obvious difference is our words are not taken as seriously by a countless number of people reading every word that comes out of our mouths. These players have a strong connection to the issues they're choosing to stand behind. Many face or have faced racial injustices and come from a place that is much different than the lives they currently live. So their choice to wear an article of clothing to passively communicate their views on current events relating to race seems pretty reasonable to me and actually reminds me that these people are more than just high-paid jocks. They're people who have opinions, too, and should totally have the freedom to express what they believe. Some, however, are reacting much differently than myself and do not believe the subtle moves should be taken positively.

The police departments who have connections to the instances the t-shirts reference are not happy about the statements the athletes are choosing to make. In each situation, the police have commented on the responsibility they believe professional athletes should adhere to as well as that of the organizations they play for. President Jeffery Follmer of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association commented on Hawkins' fashion choice negatively, stating, "It's pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. They should stick to what they know best on the field."

What's pretty pathetic is that this guy in charge, who is speaking for the Cleveland Police Department, is forgetting the First Amendment Rights we as citizens of the United States have. The athletes aren't trying to show they know the law better than any other; they are showing support for an issue they believe had outcomes that were far from fair. Looking at the NBA and the rise of "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts the athletes are choosing to wear, we see the issues gaining recognition and the authorities pressuring a response from Commissioner Adam Silver. So far, I think Silver has done a great job of finding the fine line between the organization's regulations and the rights of the players and keeping balance between the two. He has made it clear that the choice to wear these shirts, which are part of a national protest against police violence, is that of the athlete. Although some may think Silver is coming to a breaking point, the fact that he's preserved his image and that of the NBA is nothing short of a positive reflection.

What's interesting here is that it's the police departments that are gaining the negative image. In trying to maintain their reasoning and actions by remarking on the athletes' style choices as unfavorable, they are creating quite an unfavorable reputation for themselves. For whatever reason, they believe that by declaring the actions of the athletes ignorant and the organizations they play for unresponsive, they are helping their case. Why anyone would think it is a good idea to declare people like Andrew Hawkins, Kobe Bryant and Derrik Rose as pathetic and oblivious to the law is beyond me. They must have forgotten that these people have huge fan bases who support their players on and off the field. It's not like these guys are huge competitors in professional sports or anything. I think it would be appropriate if someone started wearing a t-shirt that says "I Know and Am the Law" in support of the police department's attempts at silencing the opinionated athletes.

Taking a step back, it's kind of funny that a t-shirt can rile up a department of men. Usually, I find it's me and my girls getting excited about a fashion trend, like the new line of printed leggings that will be coming out the following season. Regardless, as long as these athletes are "projecting their support and bringing awareness to issues that are important to them ... in a responsible manner," there is no reason why their ways of protesting should be discouraged. We all have a right to speak our minds.

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