Shut up and dribble? No, thanks. Athletes uniquely qualified to lead as America confronts its reality

Shut up and dribble, they’re told by those who fear their message.

The message is one of equality, the messengers the athletes who live in a world of meritocracy about as pure as it can be on planet Earth.

Preconceptions, prejudices and biases get dispelled pretty quickly between the lines, where everybody starts off tied and the rules apply evenly to all. I’ve spent my entire adult life around such people. It’s amazing what that environment does to promote the conviction that among the characteristics that truly separate people, skin color doesn’t make the list.

You learn quickly whom you’d want at your side under duress when you share a uniform or a playing surface and, again, the tipping point never comes down to skin color.

So, yeah, when it comes to the uncomfortable conversation America has at last chosen to undertake – racial injustice, white privilege and institutionalized mistreatment of African-Americans, often but hardly exclusively in the form of police brutality – athletes are perhaps more suited to lead the discussion than any other professional class. It doesn’t make them impervious to prejudice, but the shell of self-delusion has to be especially dense to hold up in their world.

Dwane Casey, who grew up in Kentucky at a time every native son of the commonwealth dreamed of playing for the state’s flagship university, spoke eloquently and powerfully last month – in the wake of the obscene murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police – about his fears as an 8-year-old faced with integrating his school. At the time, here’s how many black players had suited up for Adolph Rupp’s beloved Kentucky Wildcats: zero.

So amend that last bit to read “every white native son,” because it was a dream Casey couldn’t dare to have in 1965 as he helped break down one barrier. Not until 1970, when Casey was 13, did Rupp field a team with a black player, Tom Payne. Nobody was under any illusion Rupp was championing the cause of equality. But he had noticed that Alabama had integrated the Southeastern Conference a year earlier, landing the very talented Wendell Hudson.

Eight years later, Dwane Casey, a Kentucky senior, was named Wildcats captain. A little bit of opportunity goes a long way.

Casey marched in Detroit’s protests as did Pistons players who were in town, Luke Kennard among them.

“It was awesome. We know there needs to be a change, we really do,” Kennard said. “To have people on staff like coach Casey and some of our assistant coaches who are really involved in it, to have leaders like that guide us and educate people all across the country, it’s good to follow their lead. Coach Casey came out with a really good response. He wants people to be educated about it. I think everybody needs to continue to learn what’s happened through generations and that’s what we stand for right now. We have to do it together.”

Blake Griffin participated in protests near his Southern California base. Growing up in Oklahoma as the product of a marriage between a black father and white mother, it’s fair to assume Griffin understands the complexities of race – and the cruelties of racial inequality – on another level than most. He sees this is a moment of potential for great change.

“Obviously disheartened, discouraged, but at the same time – crazy as it sounds – sort of inspired just by the amount of support and the amount of people rallying behind this. I’m inspired by that,” Griffin said. “I was talking to coach Casey – he’s been through an unbelievable amount of racial divide – and one of the things I thought was really interesting, he said when he was marching as a kid, there weren’t nearly this many white people following this cause and supporting this movement. I look at things through that lens and see the good in people, that things are at least beginning to change. But this is just the very, very, very beginning.”

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in Traverse City at Red Wings training camp at the moment terrorists struck the Twin Towers. Amid a roster filled with Americans, Canadians, Russians, Swedes, Czechs and Germans – players who’d been crossing international borders to compete since before they were old enough to shave – the conversation kept coming around to how people from the other side of the world could generate such hatred for each other based on which god they worship.

And America’s focus over the ensuing two decades has been about protecting us from those unknown “others,” goliath industries funded with taxpayer dollars nurtured in response to the attacks on 9/11.

All the while, the more insidious, more pernicious evil – racial intolerance, injustice and inequality – has continued to thrive under the surface, all too frequently bubbling over in violent and perverse bursts of inhumanity.

This time feels different. But if it is to endure – if it, indeed, becomes irrefutably different – it will require all hands on deck. This can’t be a battle fought only by those upon whose necks are knees forced. And no professional class of people is better equipped to take part in that effort – to lead it, even – than athletes. They speak powerfully to the reality of life inside a meritocratic world. There are those who fear such a world. Go ahead and ask yourself why that might be. Shut up and dribble? No thanks.