NBA Players' Black Wall of Silence: Why It Exists and How to Tear It Down

Reservoir GodCorrespondent IISeptember 29, 2011

“Athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali type statements.” --Carmelo Anthony quoting a line from rapper Nas
“Athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali type statements.” --Carmelo Anthony quoting a line from rapper Nas

Carmelo Anthony told Michael Tillery from The Starting Five blog that athletes are scared to speak their minds on important issues.

Why is that?

David Aldridge from TurnerSports asked Melo why he thinks players are scared, but Anthony said he didn’t know.

I have a few ideas.

I’ve been thinking about the Black Wall of Silence in the NBA since Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia last week and only a few players’ voices slipped through the cracks to address the issue. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far...

My brother sent me this tweet last week after reading one of the Troy Davis articles published on this blog: “We need more sports stars like Ali, to stand up against injustice...”

Melo hit Tillery with a quote from the Nas song, "My Generation": “Athletes today are scared to make Muhammad Ali-type statements.”

One of the reasons athletes may be scared to make Muhammad Ali-type statements is that they haven’t been taught the way Malcolm X mentored Cassius Clay into Ali.

Where’s the modern day El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, who could tutor LeBron James to think critically about legal issues like capital punishment or economic issues like the NBA lockout?

They say “knowledge is power.” Who’s empowering athletes like Melo with the knowledge they need so they don’t have to be scared to speak their minds?

This is the “Dilemma of Alienation” that Bill Rhoden outlines in chapter seven of his book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves.

Rhoden begins that chapter with this quote from Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro:

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary."

The mis-education of the black athlete makes them scared to speak their minds, and they don’t even know why.


When Tillery addressed the issue of black athletes not speaking their minds in “The Black Athlete Today,” he quoted a player who didn’t voice his opinions because he didn’t want to give any fodder to “local sports-radio assholes.”

Tillery also cited the adversarial relationship between white fans, white media and black athletes that was created to feed a 24-hour media monster that needs content for print, radio, television and the web. This adversarial relationship is the same reason I suggested LeBron shouldn’t take PR advice from ESPN’s Henry Abbott.

Black athletes shouldn’t be expected to have an honest conversation with a reporter in a white world of sports they can’t really trust. The Black Wall of Silence will stand tall until a safe space is created for black NBA players to voice their opinions and tear that wall down.

I’m too big a cynic to ignore the possibility that players are simply paid to keep quiet. Is there a swoosh or three stripes on the Black Wall of Silence? This issue was discussed on last week’s HEATcast.

Michael Jordan was the poster child of sponsored silence when he was in the NBA. Rhoden dedicated an entire chapter in his book to Jordan: “Dilemma of Neutrality.”

Was Jordan silenced by his sponsors? Rhoden makes a convincing argument that he definitely chose sponsorships and silence over speaking his mind. Whether it was his famous, “Republicans buy shoes, too” line, his decline to support a student rally for a black cultural center at his alma mater or protesting the Reebok logo on Dream Team apparel, Jordan let his fans know where his loyalties lied.

It was always about the money for him.

Rhoden best described Jordan this way: “The essence of Jordan’s legacy is what he accomplished; the tragedy is what he could have done.”

The same could be said for today’s black athlete if they don’t find the knowledge and courage to take their place on the world stage, regardless of what it costs them in fame and money.