Game changers

Forged after police shooting of unarmed black man, Build.Black.Coalition has shown ‘potential,’ co-founder says

Player’s Coalition co-founder and Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins addresses social and criminal justice issues in front of a packed house at the Brickhouse Gallery & Art Complex in Oak Park.

Player’s Coalition co-founder and Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins addresses social and criminal justice issues in front of a packed house at the Brickhouse Gallery & Art Complex in Oak Park.

Photo by Dylan Svoboda

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the June 21, 2018, issue.

As President Donald Trump and the National Football League bemoan the kind of political outspokenness that made Muhammad Ali a cultural icon, Sacramento has taken to embracing sports activism as a way to give voice to simmering social ills.

The galvanizing force behind the local effort has been Stephon Clark.

Responding to community outcry over the March 18 police shooting of Clark, the Sacramento Kings joined the Build.Black.Coalition, a partnership made up of organizations such as the California Endowment, Greater Sacramento Urban League, Voice of the Youth and others, with a mission to “fundamentally transform Black communities through deep investment in Black youth in Sacramento.”

Chet Hewitt, president of the Sierra Health Foundation, which belongs to the coalition, commended the civic efforts of Sacramento’s only major professional sports organization.

“The potential for this is promising,” Hewitt said. “The Kings are a leader in creating a progressive and forceful response to the economic inequality that stands between institutions like the Kings and fellow NBA players who are both doing very well and the challenges that many communities who are being left out actually face.”

The Kings’ partnership wasn’t born in a vacuum. Protesters upset over the police killing of an unarmed black man in his grandmother’s backyard twice blocked entrances to the Kings’ publicly subsidized Golden 1 Center in March. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive addressed the crowd after the March 22 game.

“We at the Kings recognize your people’s ability to protest peacefully and we respect that,” he said. “We here at the Kings recognize that we have a big platform. It’s a privilege but it’s also a responsibility. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously and we stand here before you—old, young, black, white, brown—and we are all united in our commitment.”

Two weeks after the Clark shooting, Build.Black. and the Kings hosted a community forum with current and former players Vince Carter, Garrett Temple and Doug Christie, at which attendees were encouraged to vent and pray. At the forum, Temple touched on the national significance of what’s happened in a city that’s had nine officer-involved shootings since April 2016.

“This isn’t just a Sacramento issue,” he said. “This is an American issue.”

More recently, the Kings and Build.Black. launched a co-ed youth basketball league on June 2, which features 16 teams made up of kids from eight of Sacramento’s most underprivileged neighborhoods. The Kings and Queens Rise Basketball League “seeks to interrupt violence” through “inter-community sports,” with players invited to a July 2 forum at Golden 1 Center to discuss community issues.

Outside of the partnership, former Kings players moved by the Clark story have gotten involved in other ways. In April, after a private family autopsy by Dr. Bennet Omalu determined Clark was shot mostly in the back, former Sacramento King and Del Campo alumnus Matt Barnes held a rally at Cesar Chavez Plaza, during which he urged police officers to connect with the black communities in Sacramento.

“We fear what we don’t know,” Barnes said at the rally. “We don’t know these cops, so we fear them. They don’t know us, so they fear us.”

It’s not just basketball players who are coming to Sacramento to discuss law enforcement’s disproportionate killing of black men. On May 10, Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Players Coalition, a professional athlete-led criminal and social justice advocacy organization, headlined a criminal justice reform forum in Oak Park. The forum was inspired by the Clark shooting and district attorney’s election. Jenkins was joined by candidate Noah Phillips, who last week conceded the race to incumbent Anne Marie Schubert.

“When I and nine other members of the coalition saw Stephon Clark, an unarmed citizen, gunned down when there are obviously techniques in place for officers to stop an individual without using force, we decided to come to Sacramento to have a conversation on criminal justice reform as the district attorney race is underway,” Jenkins said.

Trump disinvited Jenkins and the Eagles 24 hours before they were scheduled to celebrate their Super Bowl victory with a White House visit, for their role in national anthem protests that have gripped the NFL. Jenkins declined to respond verbally to reporters when asked about the president’s slight. Instead he held up signs highlighting political and charitable contributions from various NFL players in recent years.

Trump also preemptively rescinded White House invites to whichever team won the NBA Finals, after Cleveland Cavalier Lebron James and Golden State Warrior Steph Curry indicated they wouldn’t attend.

Trump and his supporters have made political sport of criticizing outspoken professional athletes. At a rally in September, Trump referred to Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers, one of the early national anthem protesters, as a “son of a bitch.” In February, James said in an ESPN video that Trump “really doesn’t give a fuck about the people.” Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham responded by saying James should “shut up and dribble.”

Hewitt noted that sports have a long history of influencing social change and that attempts to silence professional athletes are nothing new.

“You can go back to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick,” Hewitt said. “Some people are going to be more brave and forthcoming, some folks are going to try to limit activism as well. We’re seeing that play out across the pro sports spectrum.”

Kaepernick has emerged as a leader in contemporary sports activism after he began kneeling during the national anthem during the NFL season before last. Since then, hundreds of NFL players have followed suit. But the advocacy has come at a cost: Kaepernick and Reid have accused NFL owners of colluding to keep them out of the league due to their advocacy.

While the NFL recently entered into a $90 million partnership with the Players Coalition to combat social inequality, the league also adopted a new policy that allows it and its teams to fine players who publicly sit out the national anthem.

Jenkins reacted on Instagram: “Everyone loses when voices get stifled.”

The NBA has also faced criticism for having a rule against sitting or kneeling during the anthem.

Following his team’s sweep of the Cavs for its third NBA championship in four years, Warriors coach Steve Kerr participated in a media session in which he suggested history would judge the players more kindly than it would those who try to silence them.

“What you’re seeing is the athletes are showing patriotism through their community service,” Kerr reflected. “The president is turning all of this into a political game and a ratings game and a blatant display of nationalism. But patriotism is helping your fellow citizens.”