By Jason Keidel
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How fitting that the city with the most elaborate subway system on Earth has landed on the third rail of American discourse.
There was quite a confluence of highbrow humanity in Brooklyn on Monday night. We had actual royalty in William and Kate, pop-culture royalty in Jay-Z, and the best basketball player on the planet performing for them.
Then King James unveiled his slice of social expression, rolling up the layup line in his “I Can’t Breathe” shirt. This, on the heels of a handful of St. Louis Rams raising their hands in silent protest over the events in Ferguson, and we have a full-blown movement from professional athletes.
And that’s a good thing.
We forever lament athletes for all manner of malfeasance. When they drink and drive, punch their wives, smoke crack or shoot equine potions into their bulging buttocks, we cry for common sense.
We breathlessly inquire, “When will they ever understand their role as role models?”
Then we bemoan players when they actually read something other than their playbook, which makes us more than myopic. We are hypocrites. We can’t trash athletes for taking their violence way beyond the field and then resent them for nonviolent protest.
Forget, if you can, whether you agree with LeBron and the rest. How can you not hail our athletic aristocracy for being socially aware? You can understand if our more prominent athletes are a bit dizzy from our conflicting demands. We want them to behave, to be good boys, to take their millions and humbly live their lives. And then when they do exactly that, we want them to stuff it.
I know the reflexive retort. What if a white player had jogged out on the court sporting an NYPD shirt? Surely his reception would not be so benign, but he should be afforded every protection that we give the other side. This isn’t about being right. It’s about being real.
We’re all quite cozy to make our statements at a dinner table, surrounded by people who look exactly like us. But we’re rather reticent to express the same views in public because we will be branded radicals or racists.
There’s no middle ground here, and that’s exactly the problem. Each side has dug its metaphorical line and is breathing fire from its bunker. If you agree with LeBron and the Rams and the Can’t Breathe Crew, you’re a race-baiter. If you side with law enforcement, you abhor people of color.
So you’re either shouting in the shadow of Rockefeller Center or you’re a closet bigot who backs police brutality. Our hairs are so spiked that we can’t even talk to the other side without getting obscenely defensive.
But look at Monday night. You had an amalgam of Americans in Brooklyn, watching a basketball game, in peace. It was a veritable rainbow of race and class, just a few fly balls from Lady Liberty. That’s the ideal, not the fruits of being cool or the fine print of the law. No grand jury, no ruling from a bureaucrat, defines our collective character.
Native New Yorkers, more than anyone in our nation, have been exposed to the American mosaic. Most of us born in the Big Apple have a circle of friends that put the United Nation to shame. Shame on any of us who can’t hail the freedom, if not the wisdom, of ardent social expression.
Who cares who’s right and who’s wrong? We’re so busy scrambling to the side of enlightenment and public acceptance that we forget that robust debate is what made this country better than any on the planet.
The Cavaliers won the basketball game, by the way. But that shrinks behind the larger narrative. A few athletes peacefully expressed their opinions and no one died, cried or even objected. The only reason we know about the protest is because of the protestor.
New York City is a much better place than the abject stereotypes being hurled at us from some cynical elitists trying to score political points. And it’s up to us to prove it.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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