What is the ‘State of the Black Athlete’? The cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete, as told in pictures

Athletic success may get you through the door, but be mindful, once you get here: “Stick to sports.”

There has been an unspoken expectation and, more recently, an apparent insistence that athletes’ opinions and passions are to be kept quiet. But the cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete has pushed back on this narrative.

We asked several artists of color to examine and interpret the current “state of the black athlete.” Here’s what they came up with.

Sam Adefé

I often find that no matter the sport, brothers in the game continuously have to prove themselves worthy of the pedestal they are heavily burdened with. I say brother because to me, every black athlete represents someone like myself — a black kid chasing his dreams — finding inspiration in the actions of the people already paving the way.

Represented here is Anthony Joshua’s raised clenched fist after he defeated Wladimir Klitschko. To the many black youths who happened to be watching that day, witnessing that gesture meant more than just a show of celebration. This gesture symbolizes a show of solidarity.

Adrian Brandon

My goal with this illustration is to address the commonalities between black professional athletes and the black victims of police violence — it highlights the incredible amount of responsibility black athletes have and the role sports fans play in the current wave of athlete activism.

The sprinter in the illustration is focused on the finish line, while his shadow represents the young black victims of police brutality, symbolizing the constant fear that all black men and women face in today’s society.

Both the sprinter and his shadow are running away — in the same direction, illustrating the chilling similarities between black professional athletes and the victims we see on the news.

The crowd supporting the runner changes from sports fans (right) to protesters/activists (left). This begs the question, who is the black athlete competing for? How has this wave of black athlete activism changed the mentalities of sports fans?

Brandon Breaux

I wanted to capture black athletes in a contemplative state. These competitors have or have had the ability to reach so many people — it’s a great responsibility, but can also be a great burden.

Athletes, in general, already have to deal with so much: unwanted attention, pressure, rumors, performance anxiety, and even more. Black athletes, have all that on top of feeling as though they aren’t 100 percent accepted in their own country.

Today’s current state of affairs feel special. I think it’s a time where the life of a black athlete/person is so much bigger than the self, and the athletes in my illustration represent the contemplation that comes with it.

Caitlin Cherry

John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2017 to pursue his studies as a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His retirement came suddenly, just two days after a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found nearly all former NFL players who donated their brains to science had signs of CTE.

It seemed the two were connected.

Urschel knows the all-too-real statistics that injury risk is high and the average NFL player’s career spans between two and five years.

He should inspire the next generation of would-be ballplayers in any professional sport that their studies in college are not supplementary. There is a life after the NFL. I appreciate him as a Renaissance man.

Chase Conley

What Huey P. Newton has taught me is that I have the power to change my condition, and it’s vital that we stand up against the unjust and fight for what we believe in, even if the cost is high. Until these players start worrying about the issues concerning the state of black people in this country and not about their paychecks, they are still a part of the problem. Yes, you may lose your job, but is that job more important than the condition of your people? Young black teenagers being gunned down in the street every other week? We all should have the courage to sacrifice for the greater good.

What would these leagues be without black people anyway?

Emmanuel Mdlalose

I likened the movement of sprinter Allyson Felix to when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Representing Felix overcoming obstacles faced by a black woman, especially in the athletic world — just dominating. I am drawn to her composed personality while being able to be strong-willed at the same time. She really represents the metamorphosis of a butterfly — in all her beauty, swiftness, and, most importantly, freedom.

Kia Dyson

In a time where black bodies are on public display and seemingly viewed to hold no value, I have attempted to find a way to turn tragedies within the black community into works of art.

“Above All Things” represents the ability, and, more importantly, the necessity for women of color to go above and beyond in all we do just to receive fair recognition. The expectations are higher for us.

We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity when it comes to providing, performing or competing. So we use our excellence as a form of protest: a demonstration of strength, acceptance, womanhood and visibility.

Laci Jordan

The state of the black athlete is conflicted.

Athletes grow up simply loving the game. As they grow older, outside factors come into play that can inhibit that love: notoriety, fame, special treatment, money, etc. Players can also become public figures and role models. Black athletes are stuck between these two worlds.

As an athlete, you have the keys to success to take care of yourself and your family, but on the other end, you sacrifice your voice and ability to speak on anything political — you’re told to stick to the game. As a black athlete, you’re expected to enjoy your riches and fame in exchange for your voice, choices and ethics.

Pierre Bennu

This piece references the Afro-futurist interpretation of the slavery project in the Western Hemisphere as a centuries-long genetic experiment, as well as the Sankofa concept of looking backward and seeing the future.

In choosing materials to make up the image, I imagine the middle passage as a thrusting or throwing forward into the future of mass amounts of human capital. With the crown of shards, I seek to reference the toll that many professional sports take on the body and also the regal state of being at peak physical form.

Robert Generette III

The statement on the tape, “PLAY,” not only states a command but also commands attention. I wanted the art to speak to different sides of the argument: players who comply, players wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, and fans for or against athletes’ choices.

In the illustration, a spotlight is placed on an ambiguous African-American athlete who is shirtless, which suggests he’s baring it all. For the athletes who comply with “shut up and play,” the red arrow symbolizes the potential for them to excel or “climb the ladder to success” in their sport. The athlete who complies thrives.

For the athletes wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, the intense stare reflects the absurdity of being told to shut up and play. The athlete has the complex choice of raising one fist (in protest) or raising both fists (in victory). For the fans who are not affected by or disagree with the views of athletes, the sticker across the athlete’s mouth, in their opinion, should become an essential part of the uniform.

I want this illustration to beg the questions: Should you keep quiet and find contempt for living one’s dream? Or should you use your dream as a platform to speak for those whose voices go unheard at the expense of sacrificing one’s dream?

Ronald Wimberly

I asked myself about the political role of the black body within a racist, consumerist paradigm and how that plays out in sports. For this image I thought about how athletes may work through these very same questions through sports. From Muhammad Ali’s name change to the Black Power fists of the 1968 Olympic Games, to Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee — we are given expressions, symbolic abstractions, symbols that challenge us to think. I think this is the most radical act: to be challenged to think, to ask questions. Explaining artwork is a trap.

Formally, the work is a dialogue with the works of Aaron Douglas and Tadanori Yokoo and the movements to which they belong.

Tiffany B. Chanel

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. In the face of explicit and implicit racism, everyday people rise selflessly to address social injustice. Among these people are African-American athletes, such as the ones in my painting, who use their public platform and their First Amendment right to solidify their purpose as change agents. Their primary goal is to rewrite the narrative of oppressed people and afford them a pathway to upward mobility.

Some may say we have come really far, but have we really? What would you say?

Dear Black Athlete: Michael Bennett “How can we trust each other when so many of people have been lost?”

The Seattle Seahawks defensive end gave a powerful plea for justice and trust for Dear Black Athlete, a series of conversations featuring prominent African-American athletes, and civic and community leaders.

Dear Black Athlete: Ibithaj Muhammad The Olympic medal winning fencer delivers a message for allyship to her teammates

Ibithaj Muhammad, an indispensable voice against injustice and bigotry, delivered a powerful contribution to Dear Black Athlete, a series of conversations featuring prominent African-American athletes, and civic and community leaders.

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.

Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience

Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.

The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.

And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”

We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.

Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.

Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”

Cam Newton is a human being, and apparently this is troubling to America.

If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.

In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.

It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.

Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:

“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

How the Warriors become the wokest team in pro sports It’s a combination of all that winning, Oakland’s place in the black power movement and these unusual times

There’s a moment during his conversation about athletes and activism at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government when Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green seems to shift his weight. Green, who was in town to face the Celtics later that November night, has altered his game day routine to be at the lunchtime event, which was initially scheduled for a classroom, but had to be moved to a conference center when more than 500 students signed up.

He takes the stage wearing high-top designer sneakers and a long-sleeved fishtail shirt. He folds his frame into a large wooden chair and fumbles with his microphone. “I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be speaking at Harvard. It’s like a dream come true,” says Green, before settling into his talk: Athletes should only champion issues they’re passionate about, he says. He discusses the pervasive tensions between young people and police, and the need to continue to educate himself about social justice.

When a student asks for a response to those who say he should stick to basketball, Green leans forward, drawing closer to the crowd. It’s an opening for Green to issue a philosophical declaration, a Contemplation on the Nature of Athlete and Society, although more social media–friendly.
And he delivers.

“That’s funny,” Green says, after pausing a moment. “People say athletes shouldn’t speak politics. Well, I find that funny, because everyone thinks they can speak basketball.” The crowd erupts in applause. It’s an authoritative answer from a guy with a 7-foot wingspan, extending to his full proportions in a completely different arena. And it’s representative of what we’ve been watching the Warriors do over and over, in high-profile ways, during the past year.

Black athlete-activists are not new, of course. Boxer Jack Johnson punched through racial barriers in the early 20th century, Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, Althea Gibson was the first person of color to win a grand slam title in 1956, and a dozen years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved, black-power fists atop the medal stand in the Mexico City Olympics. In 2015, a protest by the Missouri football team over racism on campus forced the resignation of the university’s president, and the following year, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY awards to urge athletes to speak out against injustice. A host of WNBA players, including Maya Moore and Tina Charles, have worn T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter.

But these were individual athletes fighting for a cause, or teams engaging on one issue over a limited period of time.

The Warriors are something else entirely: They’re the NBA’s winningest team, in possibly the country’s most progressive market, with the most politically outspoken players and coach, during the most racially polarized period in two generations. It’s an evolutionary development in the power and influence of the American citizen-athlete, with commensurate risks to their reputations and livelihoods. (See: Kaepernick, Colin R.) The Dubs are not simply basketball superstars, they might just be the most progressive—the most woke—team in the history of professional sports.

It was a morning in late September, one day after Warriors guard Steph Curry told reporters at the team’s media day that he’d vote to skip the traditional NBA champions White House visit, and Curry’s wife, Ayesha, was waking him up, laughing.

“Trump tweeted about you,” Ayesha said.

“I reached up to grab my phone,” Curry remembers now, “and I had about 20 text messages.” President Donald Trump had rescinded the yet-to-be-issued White House invitation, tweeting at Curry that since he was hesitating, “invitation is withdrawn!”

Suddenly, Curry, the family-friendly face of the franchise, was at the center of one of the year’s biggest sports and politics stories.

The team had planned to meet that day at its Oakland practice facility to decide collectively about whether to make the trip. Instead, the day unfolded in a mixture of both gravity and weirdness. Curry recalls the next several hours being “surreal.”

“I’m like, ‘He said he’s not inviting you. We can still go,’” Green says with a laugh. “We really, honestly made a joke of it.”

More than three months later, before an early-January practice, Curry seems unbruised by the incident—and no less supportive of his team: “When I talk about just being informed and thoughtful and passionate about what you believe in, we have guys all up and down this roster who kind of fall into that category.” His own thoughtfulness springs from a childhood during which his mother, Sonya, shared experiences of growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Radford, Virginia. “The family as a whole had a lot of run-ins with police and things like that in Radford and a lot of racism growing up there,” Curry says, “so she has a lot of stories around that.”

“But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”—Warriors GM Bob Myers

His father, Dell Curry, is the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. And while the family was well-off, Steph says he was always conscious of being black—and his obligations to the black people around him. He attended a small Christian high school; of the 360 kids there, maybe 14 were African-American.

“We all sat at the same lunch table,” he says, “so we had a very tight community group that understood we were different in that space. I think we learned to protect that identity a little bit and celebrate it and have each other’s back.” And when he played AAU basketball with black kids from area public schools, he came to understand the differences in the worlds they inhabited—how some families struggled to put gas in the tank for an out-of-town tournament, but also that “we all had some common ground that we could appreciate about each other.” It was a figure-it-out-together quality, for the team, for the culture, that he took into adulthood.

And though last fall’s Twitter firestorm was unusual because it pitted Curry against the president of the United States, it was only an extreme example of what many players on the Warriors are doing.

Last summer Curry and forward Andre Iguodala, who have invested in tech start-ups, organized a technology summit for NBA players. “I’m trying to bust down a door” for my people, Iguodala says. In October, after ESPN reported that Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had likened pro football protesters to “inmates running the prison,” Green posted on Instagram that because of its historical freight, the NFL should “stop using the word owner.” Other players, including forwards David West and Kevin Durant, have found purpose or purchase to speak about history and their growing racial awareness. Coach Steve Kerr routinely talks about politics at his news conferences, and last February he tweeted, “I subscribed to The Washington Post today because facts matter.”

Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala high five during game.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

What gives them the cover and authority to stray so far and so publicly from the topics society typically wants to hear from people who play basketball for a living? One could say it’s their birthright as citizens to exercise the democratic mandates of civic participation and engagement in service of that foundational American imperative to form a more perfect union. But, sike nah. It’s all that winning they be doing.

Barring calamity, the Warriors are favored to advance to the Finals for the fourth consecutive year. And winning, Green says, strengthens them in a number of ways: “No. 1, you got so much attention at all times. No. 2, you’re a champion, they want to see what you got to say. You’re doing something so great that it gives you even more of a voice. … No one cares what a loser has to say.”

They’re a talented team, says general manager Bob Myers, “with a variety of leaders of high character,” and that affords them a degree of buy-in for their off-court views. “But at the same time, I think it’s something you have to protect. It seems to work for us because we win. But what if we don’t win? Do these stories get written? Do these things get said?”

America tells itself a story that success—in sports and elsewhere—is predicated upon competitiveness, discipline, hard work and character. Sports is as essential as religion to reinforcing those values to the nation, says Harry Edwards, an author, activist and consultant for the Warriors and 49ers, who organized the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights that ultimately led to the protest in Mexico City. It has scribes, departed saints (Vince Lombardi, Red Auerbach) and hallowed halls of fame. “It has sacred implements,” he says. “The ball that Hank [Aaron] hit over the fence when he broke Babe Ruth’s record, which people will pay millions for.”

When winning athletes—let alone winning black athletes—question the validity of mainstream definitions, it sets up an acute civic dissonance. Kaepernick or Carlos or Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf become heretics and are punished as such. But the all-I-do-is-win-win-win Warriors have amassed so much cultural capital that they are not only worshipped, they’re widely heard.

All that discipline, smarts, true-grit stuff? Their winning proves it works, Edwards says. But their activism challenges whether it works for people in Oakland and East St. Louis and the South Side of Chicago.

The fact that they get to keep saying it is not only because they’re winning—it’s because winning in the Bay Area is a whole other thing.

Outside his DOPE ERA clothing shop (During Oppression People Evolve, Everyone Rises Above) in North Oakland, Mistah F.A.B. (aka Stanley Cox) muses about whether the Warriors are, in fact, the most politically progressive team ever. He’s a rap artist and community activist who once did a freestyle rap about the Warriors that foreclosed that option to anyone who has thought about trying it since. Now he recalls Smith and Carlos and cites the Clippers wearing their warm-up jerseys reversed to protest racist remarks by then-team owner Donald Sterling in 2014. But “I can’t even think of a team in contention for social relevance,” he says, “in the way the Warriors are demonstrating now.”

Some of that stems from Oakland itself. For more than half a century, Oakland and the Bay Area have been synonymous with the black consciousness movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. They’ve welcomed the Free Speech Movement, anti-war protests and the Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The cities by the bay have been an incubator for gay rights, anti-fascism and Black Lives Matter.

Sitting behind the baseline of Court One at their Oakland practice facility, Durant recalls the poor D.C.-area neighborhood where he grew up, noting the ways his head has changed in the time he’s traveled from there to here. “You can feel that culture when you get here,” says Durant, who signed with the Warriors in 2016 and was last year’s Finals MVP. As a child, he lived off Pennsylvania Avenue, “so you could drive 10 miles from the front of the White House … and you’re gonna run into where I grew up.” He knew where that street in front of his house led, who was living there and what it meant to be the head of state, he says, though he often tuned out all of those civics lessons, along with anything else that was happening off the court.

Kevin Durant waves to fans while holding the NBA Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy through the community that he grew up in Prince George’s County in Maryland.

Ting Shen for The Undefeated

He calls his neighborhood 95 percent black with “80 percent of us living in poverty” and says he was so hell-bent on getting out that he turned a blind eye to the ways people were struggling to make it. It was a part of his soul he kept on ice, and he sometimes wishes he could tell his younger self to open his eyes and offer a little more hope and joy “to people who struggled, the way I struggled.” Because black joy is resistance.

“Just walking around downtown Oakland, just driving around East Oakland, getting to the game every day, you could just tell that somebody fought and died for these streets that we were riding in,” Durant says. Once you know that, you can’t unknow it. Some wonder if that community connection will continue after the Warriors move to San Francisco’s Chase Center for the 2019-20 season. For now, though, Durant is focused on what’s before him: “You can appreciate the people that built this community. And it’s not because of the Warriors, but I think we do a really great job of adding onto something that was already incredible. The Warriors now, especially with the team we have, we are kind of carrying the torch for being the socially conscious team. There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”

Before every practice or shootaround, the Warriors players gravitate to a group of 20 chairs in a corner of the gym near the weight room. Kerr stands in front of the group and talks about the practice plan, the upcoming schedule and other matters. Unlike most other NBA teams, “other matters” sometimes includes Trump’s latest tweets, the Alabama Senate election or the reign of the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

It’s a little Woke U in front of the TV where they watch game film, a spur-of-the-moment conversation guided by the events of the day and the passions of those who feel like speaking up. They share what they know and bookmark what they don’t for further reading after they change out of practice shorts and shirts.

Kerr is part of a small contingent of white coaches with a reputation for being thoughtful and outspoken about race, politics and social justice. The group includes Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, both of whom Kerr played for, as well as the Pistons’ Stan Van Gundy.

“When I came here, I had a feeling that Coach Kerr was kind of open-minded about everything,” Durant says. “And I heard the organization was that way. But once you get into it and we talk about Trump winning the election before practice and before a game, and if we won a championship, what would happen—that stuff gets your mind thinking about what is going on outside the gym.

“And it has all our minds moving and working. And now I’m just caught up on everything that’s going on in the world. When you’re naive and when you just think about what you’re passionate about and what you love every day, you tend to forget about what is outside. Coming in here gives you a taste of both: your love and passion but also the real world. I love it.”

“There are a bunch of guys that just want to start a conversation about how we can be better as a nation, as a community.”—Kevin Durant

Says West, a two-time All-Star: “Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.” For years, without media attention, West has been engaged in his own demonstration during the national anthem. He stands last in line and a foot behind the rest of his team, in silent protest over issues of race, education, infant mortality and black life expectancy.

Before coming to the Warriors as a free agent in 2016, West says, he expected Green to be outspoken and had heard Curry was well-read. But Kerr’s interest in politics and his support of players’ curiosity and engagement was, for West, a revelation. “He just blurts out, like, ‘Morning, fellas, look at this crazy s— going on in Alabama.’ You know what I mean? Just like that, he jumps right out there.”

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with guard Stephen Curry during the second half of Game 2 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2017.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

One day in mid-December, a reporter is sitting with Kerr along the Court One sideline and asks about Democrat Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama special election over Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Kerr starts cautiously, then builds momentum: “I think it’s interesting that it just felt like a moment that we could hold on to some hope. But I don’t want that to sound like a liberal/conservative issue, because it really is not for me. It’s character. And I don’t even know Doug Jones. I just know that he doesn’t molest young girls, and so that’s a victory.”

Against a background of bouncing balls and other ambient gym noise, Kerr begins a small tangent on the fall of the Roman Empire and the dangers of internal decay. The part of him not consumed by basketball is fixated on history and politics, and it’s a focus he encourages in others. “Not only is it important from the standpoint that we’re all citizens and human beings and we should know what’s going on in the world, but it’s also important for the players to have balance in their lives.”

Clearly, though, nothing animates him like gun control, some of which has to do with family history. His father, Malcolm Kerr, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was killed by gunmen in 1984. But Kerr says he’d feel passionately about the issue anyway. It’s insane, he says, “that we can’t come to a place where sensible gun control makes sense to people, that we can just live in a country where 500-plus people can be shot from a hotel room floor and yet the very next government measure is actually to loosen the gun measures.”

“Steve and I, when we interact, basketball’s like the last thing we talk about.”—David West on his relationship with his coach

Kerr says he’s guided by a Popovich expression—by an accident of birth—as in, “By an accident of birth, you’ve lived the life you’ve lived, I’ve lived the life I’ve lived. It’s important for all of us to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes.” He says his ability to empathize has been shaped by travel and the diversity he’s experienced as a teammate of black and Latino players. “It’s like you’re thrown into this locker room with people who have lived a totally different life and see the world differently from you. It’s incredibly healthy.”

And the guy who hired Kerr? He cosigns it all. “Who am I to tell them what to feel, how to think?” Myers says. “All I would say and what we tell our guys is, educate yourself, try to speak intelligently on something. Research it, try to look at both sides. Then, whatever you’ve gotta say, say it.”

The Warriors have just beaten the Mavericks 112-97 on a December evening, and Iguodala, who finished with two points but a game-high 10 assists, is standing at his locker. He’s talking not about the game but about the past, and the situational awareness he needs for the present and the future.

“I know about people who grew up the way I did, and I know about their struggle and I know about things that are set up for them not to succeed,” says Iguodala, a 14-year veteran who grew up in Springfield, Illinois. This is the way life is set up, he tells his 10-year-old son: “You’re black, you’re an African-American man,” so you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings.

And you have to choose the things you allow into your head. Iguodala has recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle and has just finished Things Fall Apart, the classic African novel by Chinua Achebe. “I curate everything that comes into my brain,” he says. “Though there’s still some BS in there, like some funny stuff. I’m still fighting that.”

It’s that determined curiosity that distinguishes the Warriors, says Edwards: “What is singular about the Golden State Warriors, and it’s the only thing that you can really ask and legitimately project about a team like Golden State, they’re the greatest, most informed, the most intelligent, the most critically and vitally political of their era.”

It’s an era shaped by images of police shooting citizens, a video canon watched by players, who recognize that their own privilege and relative immunity doesn’t extend to people who look like them, or to anyone else they love. It’s an era in which fundamental national questions we thought had been asked and answered about race and equality are being re-engaged.

It’s also an era in which athletes, especially in the NBA, have both financial power and the ability through social media to connect with millions worldwide. They can hit send without a coach’s or general manager’s permission, or third-party translation. Even Ali couldn’t spread his message without intermediaries.

The times have both framed the issues and compelled the responses. Like the men and women who came before them, the Warriors are responding to what the moment calls for.

Black-athlete activism began with the struggle for legitimacy, then access, then dignity and now power. And those struggles existed in a broader context. You can’t talk about Jackie Robinson and the integration of sports separate from the civil rights movement. You can’t talk about Jim Brown or Arthur Ashe without Black Power. And now you can’t talk about Kaepernick, the national anthem protests or the political levitation of the Golden State Warriors without the frame of the Black Lives Matter movement.

When Green tied a critique of the word “owner” to the history of white men and slave labor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called on him to apologize. Green responded by saying, “I don’t expect him to understand. … He don’t know the feeling I get when I turn on the TV and see an unarmed black man got shot by a white police officer.” Those comments instantly became part of the national race conversation.

But that, Kerr says, won’t always be the case. “The inevitable downturn will come,” Kerr says, “and when we’re not winning at such a high rate, maybe there will be a different reaction” to their words, to their positions on social issues and the athlete-activists publicly creating new forms of influence in America.

Kerr says the Warriors don’t spend time thinking about that future or their place in history. Instead, the most woke coach on the most thoughtful team in the history of pro sports encourages his players to meet this standard: Say what you feel, “as long as you’re true to your convictions.”

The history will take care of itself.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

John Wall: A letter to my dad The Wizards All-Star opens up about living his dreams and honoring his father’s memory

Dear Dad,

We all go through life hoping and wishing for many things. Many of my wishes have mostly come true, with a successful career that has allowed me to take care of my family.

But there’s one wish of mine that will never be granted. That wish would be bringing you back to life so that you could see me play in the NBA.

You never got the chance to see me play basketball at any level. In fact, we never had a chance to play catch like fathers and sons do, and you were barely around when I took my first steps.

That’s what happens when a parent goes to prison. You went there when I was 2, charged with an armed robbery that I didn’t even know about until years later.

You were an inmate for most of my life. But that didn’t matter because you were my father, and to me as a young boy, prison was just a place where you happened to live.

We’d make the two-hour drive every weekend to see you, sometimes rolling two cars deep. Some of the things I got used to in my early years were getting patted down and thoroughly checked by prison guards and walking down long prison corridors with the sounds of those prison gates opening and closing.

Then I’d see you, and the trip was worth it. In the early visits, we’d be separated by a piece of thick glass, and I still remember the excitement I felt when the prison guards escorted you to the seat in front of us.

Later we were allowed to sit at an actual table with you. And I couldn’t wait for those guards to take those shackles off of you so I could jump into your arms and feel your tight embrace.

Those hugs you gave me were amazing.

When I become a father, I’m going to share your story. Not going to sugarcoat anything. I’ll let my kids know that every generation can be better and that I’m living proof.

Our discussions were never about where you came from, but the places you wanted me to go. Looking back, there you were, an inmate locked away with not much of a future. But that didn’t keep you from encouraging me, a young boy, to get an education and to go to college.

Most importantly, you instilled in me the importance of being a real man. You told me to put myself in a position to one day take care of my mother, something you were unable to do while being locked away.

Then one day you were released, and I could sense you were just as excited as I was when we packed up the car for a family getaway to White Lake, a popular North Carolina resort.

We got a cabin there for a few days, and got a chance to spend time with you for the first time with no restrictions. We went to the fair and we ate, had an artist draw a picture of us, and we played in the water.

That true family gathering was the best day of my young life.

And led to the worst day of my life.

The next day, Dad, you got sick, and I was beginning to learn that you were released because you were terminally ill with liver cancer. We had no clue that the time we spent playing in the water would lead to water getting into your wound, causing you to hemorrhage. That horrific smell from all that bleeding still sticks with me.

As you were rushed to the hospital, me and my siblings were rushed home.

It was at home days later when I overheard a phone conversation that my mother was having with her sister. I heard her say that you had died, and I went into shock. I ran right past her, out the door and down the street with no shirt and no socks. I cried so hard, because hearing you had died is more pain than any 9-year-old should experience.

At your funeral, my older brother was emotional, and promised everyone that he’d take care of the family.

But the next year he got locked up.

All those events sent my life into a downward spiral. I would talk back to my teachers, respond to taunts from kids by fighting, and I disappointed my mother each time I got kicked out of school.

Yes, the man in my life might have existed in prison. But now he was gone, and I was acting out.

Even as I got so good in basketball that people thought it could eventually be my ticket to a better life, I rebelled. When coaches tried to discipline me, I’d pout. I’d get furious my teammates wouldn’t pass to me, or the times when I was taken out of games.

How bad did it get? There were times at Garner High School, where I went in the ninth and 10th grades, when the coach wouldn’t play me. And I’d sit on the end of the bench with my legs crossed, eating a lollipop.

A lollipop. Sometimes I’d eat Skittles. Other times Starburst. I’d eat whatever candy my friends in the stands would give me. When my team called timeout, I wouldn’t even get up to go to the huddle. My attitude was if they weren’t going to play me, why bother.

I lived up to my nickname: Crazy J. And, honestly, I couldn’t have coached me.

When I got cut from my next high school — and it wasn’t because of my skills — I was hurt. My mother was devastated.

Yet at some point after that low moment for me in basketball, everything started to click.

I credit some of the men in my life. The coaches who stuck with me, even though I was a handful to deal with. The teachers and school administrators who believed in me. And my stepdad, a man I didn’t embrace at first but is someone who I would do anything for today because of what he did for my family.

With everyone rallying behind me, I became the best high school player in the nation and had a successful college career that led me to be the top pick of the NBA draft.

And, Dad, you were a part of that success and I want to thank you.

We never had the opportunity to really interact the way a father and son should. But we made the best of the time we spent in prison, forming a bond that is truly unforgettable.

I know you’re proud of the man I’ve become. I’m the first in our family to attend college, and although I have not yet completed my degree, it is a goal that I hope to accomplish. My sister followed behind to become the first in our family to graduate from college and went on to get her master’s.

I’ve taken care of my mom, and taken care of the family just like you told me.

It’s the Wall way.

When I become a father, I’m going to share your story. Not going to sugarcoat anything. I’ll let my kids know that every generation can be better and that I’m living proof. Just like you pushed me, I’ll push them to believe that they can become anything in life, like doctors, teachers, nurses or executives.

My wish of having you see me play will never come true. But just know, Dad, that there’s a reason why I have this tattoo over the left part of my chest of you holding me.

You will always be in my heart. Thank you for inspiring me.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Chris Archer: A letter to my parents The Rays ace looks back with gratitude at his childhood home, where he learned to love himself and to embrace the differences in others

The setting is a playground in Clayton, North Carolina, in the early 1990s. We’re playing dodgeball during an outdoor recess in grade school, and I’m on a roll. I nail a kid — as well as any first- or second-grader could — to eliminate him from the game, and, as he walks defeated off the field, he looks back at me and shouts the words that rock me to my core: “I don’t care that you beat me, blackie!”

I stopped dead in my tracks, confused and shaken. To this very day, I vividly remember looking skyward while trying to internalize what he had just said. I asked myself, “Is this really how people see me?”

That was the precise moment that I realized I was black. And by the time I had looked down, I realized that color was now a part of my life that I could not avoid.

Sure, being black was always physically part of my life, but, until that grade school day, I had never seen myself as physically different or faced obstacles despite my slightly darker pigmentation (the result of my white biological mother and my black biological father).

I never knew color because the love my de facto parents — who were technically my white biological grandparents and raised me since birth — enveloped me with was all the unconditional love a child could ever need.

From as young an age as I can remember, my parents Ron and Donna always championed the fact that I, and frankly everybody in the world, was different. My mom was especially proactive and would always say, “Chris, what makes you different is what makes you unique, so embrace that.”

Whether my parents were doing it consciously or subconsciously, they were unquestionably preparing me for obstacles that might arise living in North Carolina in that era.

But, at a young age, I honestly never saw any difference between myself and my parents. And as I got older, even as I began to realize my differences, I was never judgmental of other people’s race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And that was largely because of where and how I was raised.

On our cul-de-sac, we had a Mormon family. Between our house and the Mormon family was a lesbian couple. Directly across the street was a gay male couple.

Sure, that’s a lot of differences on the surface. Yet we didn’t see it that way.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

We hosted group dinners together, went to church together and had family gatherings together. And while I, the only black kid in the neighborhood, didn’t grow up on a street that was racially diverse, I did understand early in life that we are all just people despite whatever our differences may be.

As I grew older and entered my adolescent years, I was fortunate to live a life where I experienced very little racial strife and tension, which can be especially rare growing up in the South.

That’s not to say that racism didn’t exist in my adolescent life, though.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent a lot of time with this girl at school and around town. We texted back and forth for a few months, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask her if I could come over to her house to kick it.

The girl was white, and I’ll never forget her response: “My dad said that I’m not allowed to hang out with N-words, or have a boyfriend that is a N-word.”

The way she said it was a little too casual, just like when the grade school dodgeball victim called me “blackie.” And just like that little boy, this girl was unfortunate to have grown up in an environment where someone else shaped her views about race and culture.

I’m a firm believer that all people are born inherently good, and it takes a negative familial and friends environment to shape such aforementioned viewpoints.

Fortunately, I grew up in an “embrace all” environment that my parents provided me, and participation in youth sports afforded me the opportunity to make friends of all different races. Youth sports also exposed me to a particularly special high school coach, Ron Walker. Ron, who is black, welcomed me and my parents into his family, and their support allowed me to connect with a part of my black heritage and culture that was needed in my life.

You may be asking yourself, “But why was this connection needed?”

The answer:

Even to this day, regardless how welcoming I am of all people, certain people in this world will also see me in a certain light — a biracial man. That’s just a sad reality.

But it’s a reality that doesn’t change my mindset toward people who look at me that way. I embrace being biracial. I enjoy interacting with people of all different beliefs. And I most certainly accept people of different beliefs for who they are — not what they are.

I hold no grudge toward that kid on the grade school playground. And I don’t fault my sophomore year crush for the comment that ended our relationship. They didn’t know what they were saying carried so much hate. They unfortunately grew accustomed to those beliefs in the environment they were raised in, and they were simply regurgitating what their household environment passed on to them.

I just wish they could have grown up in a house and environment like mine. A house where my parents endlessly nurtured me, where they showered me with love, and where, despite my “differences,” showed me and my surrounding environment total acceptance regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.

And for that, I have three words for my parents:

I love you.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Ibtihaj Muhammad: A letter to my teammates ‘Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead,’ the U.S. Olympic fencer says

I want them to know the importance of allied voices in movements for freedom and justice. Their silence is deafening. Their choice to be “safe” and sit out of the conversation is as political as taking a knee. Though a white ally may never truly understand what it is like to be black in America, the ally’s voice as an American athlete matters. Allies send a powerful message that equality is everyone’s fight. Sports are unique in their ability to unite people of different shapes and sizes, ethnicities and faiths and varied experiences. Over the course of history, this dynamic has played an important role in shaping cultural discourse. Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

Through sports, we have the opportunity to unify and to lead.

We stand at a particularly divisive time in American history, where black and brown bodies are still denied basic human rights simply for the color of our skin, and we as athletes must not fear using our voices to fight for justice and an end to bigotry. We each have the power to change the narrative, as leaders in the movement and as allies for our teammates. For guidance, let us look to predecessors like Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, who risked everything. Let us look to allies who have been largely forgotten by history, like Peter Norman, and to modern heroes like Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe and so many women of the WNBA. Today, and every day, we must continue to fight and recommit ourselves to Martin Luther King’s vision and be inspired by his words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Chiney Ogwumike: A letter to my family The WNBA All-Star and first-generation Nigerian-American on how basketball helped her define her identity

I went to my first basketball practice when I was 9, living in Houston. It was my older sister Nneka’s first practice too. We both showed up wearing jean shorts, halter tops, glasses and Keds sneakers. We had no idea what we were doing. I ran to hide in the bathroom, crying while Nneka stumbled through practice — she’s always been the more curious one, while I want to win at everything I do. I made her play me one-on-one at home after every practice. She was basically my first coach.

Nneka and I both play in the WNBA now, and our two younger sisters, Olivia and Erica, are pre-med students who play basketball at Rice. We never could have imagined that basketball would change our lives. Most of the Nigerian parents I knew had very strict ideas about child-rearing: You went to school, got good grades and came back home. That was it, that was your childhood. Any child who didn’t aspire to be a doctor or lawyer had a lot of explaining to do.

I’m a Nigerian-American, which I consider the best of both worlds. I work like my parents and dream like my sisters. I was raised to defy expectations.

But my parents were different. I remember them getting grief from some of their Nigerian friends in Houston when they began to let us play basketball. Sports were viewed as a distraction, especially for girls. I realize now that my parents were doing something momentous and maybe even a little difficult for them when they took us to that first practice. They were teaching us that no matter what you do in life, do it to the best of your ability. And they were also allowing us to inhabit another identity — they were letting us be American girls.

I’ve lived proudly that way ever since. I’m a Nigerian-American, which I consider the best of both worlds. I work like my parents and dream like my sisters. I was raised to defy expectations.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!