Divided They Stand

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 15 Renegades Issue. Subscribe today!

THE LAST TIME an armored vehicle rolled so visibly through an American city, David Ortiz took the microphone at Fenway Park a few days later and, with an expletive and a roar, became a national symbol of defiance. The Boston Strong movement was born, followed by T-shirts and avatars and rhetoric. Permission to speak was granted to Ortiz, because he affirmed the acceptable narrative: We were fighting a war on terror, where the putative enemy -- foreign in mentality if not in complete citizenship -- was universally agreed upon. There was no risk to be associated with his words; the columns of good and evil were easily established.

Some 17 months later, in Ferguson, Missouri, armored vehicles again cruised American streets, but this time the guns of law enforcement were not targeting a teenage fugitive and his older brother after a lethal bombing. This time they were targeting fellow American citizens after the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown by a member of the Ferguson police department. In the wake of curfews, arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets, the St. Louis Rams offered tickets to the youth of Ferguson; some of the Washington football players held their hands up as they emerged from the tunnel before their preseason game against the Browns, adopting the "hands up, don't shoot" symbol of protest in solidarity with a community roiling; Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew made the same gesture after a preseason touchdown run. But save for a searing essay in Time by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the athlete's voice has been largely silent.

Boston fell within the sanctioned framework; there was consensus on where we stood, and what we stood against, so athletes were allowed to stand with us. There is nothing clean or safe about Ferguson. Once again, America has fractured along its original fault lines of race and class, but Ferguson also has introduced a collision with the post-9/11 narrative of the police and military as heroes. It's a collision whose contradictions are primarily responsible for the silence of the sports world, the staging ground for America at its most jingoistic.

Many of the players, long ago willingly co-opted into becoming individual corporations, are mindful of the potential lost dollars from controversy. They believe they must keep their true feelings to themselves lest they offend some portion of the public, thus damaging the brand, before being shamed into public apology by their agents, the league and their teams. Dwight Howard found this out the hard way weeks ago, putting his hand on the stove by tweeting support for Palestine in its conflict with Israel. He deleted his tweet around 15 minutes later and then tripped over himself backtracking: "Previous tweet was a mistake. I have never commented on international politics and never will," and "I apologize if I offended anyone with my previous tweet, it was a mistake!"

Ferguson, however, is not Gaza. For millions of African-Americans, it is not theoretical but personal. Professional athletes know the Ferguson dynamic too well, very likely better than most. The sports world is populated by hundreds of players who come from places similar to Ferguson, with similar tensions and hostilities, where the police have never been allies but an entity to fear. If ever there was time to hear from the players, for them to peek out from behind the tinted glass of their Escalades and for their teams and handlers to have the courage to encourage them to actually speak about their experiences, it is now.

The most immediate consequence for voicing such sentiments is to be greeted with the chilling chorus of "stick to sports." But that chorus is not just patronizing; it ignores the reality that sports hasn't been sticking to sports for nearly a generation. More than a decade ago, after Sept. 11, sports relinquished its traditional ground as a generally apolitical entity. It joined the war movement, codified politics into the quiet pastime of going to see a ballgame. In so doing, the games contributed to the growing culture of militarism that is now everywhere in America, a movement that has manifested itself in the mine-resistant armored vehicles that were employed by Ferguson's 53-member police force.

In the post-9/11 world, there is no separating the stadium from the world around it. And because they are inexorably intertwined, players must be able to talk about Ferguson or Gaza or Eric Garner without sanction, without being shouted down by talk radio or their GMs. When you're not the target -- and most of the predominately white sports fan base and radio hosts are not -- it is all too easy to turn the channel or roll your eyes or ignore reality by using tired, insulting phrases such as "playing the race card," as if the events in Ferguson or being choked to death by a policeman for selling loose cigarettes for 75 cents (as Garner was accused of doing) were a game.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat were admirable in 2012 in their support of Trayvon Martin's family after his fatal shooting at the hands of George Zimmerman. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, guard Chris Paul and James -- and especially Pacers forward David West -- were also relatively vocal in their criticism of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. They must be encouraged to speak now about Ferguson, because it is here where they could be instrumental in forcing America to see itself. In off-the-record conversations over text messages, in clubhouses, locker rooms and parking lots, I've heard many athletes speak to the tenuous relationship between residents and police, about being rousted by cops before they became famous, or being treated differently because of their potential; they've testified to how much more tenuous that relationship is when the police are wearing camouflage and pointing military-grade weapons at American citizens. The players know this.

They also know something else. These truths would expose one of the largest gaps in perceptions in America: The white and African-American view of the police could not be more different. The accessible athlete would become, if only temporarily, a true American citizen, not detached by money, but with real-life experiences and less comfortable perspectives to offer. Maybe the brand would suffer slightly, or maybe it would rise out of respect. Either way, the veil would be lowered, the farce of ignorance reduced. The question is whether those private conversations will ever become public, and whether the sports world -- fans, management and media -- will ever be mature enough to handle them.