FAQ: Exploring 'I Can't Breathe' shirts

LeBron James wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt during pregame warm-ups Monday in Brooklyn. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

With an increasing number of NBA players opting to wear "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, referring to the final words spoken by New York City chokehold victim Eric Garner, here's a quick explainer on the phenomenon:

What is the point of the shirts?

Although each individual player might have his own answer to that question, the general intent appears to be twofold: to raise awareness of perceived problems in police-community relations and to raise awareness of perceived problems in the criminal justice system.

Which NBA teams or players have worn the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts so far?

The first NBA player to do so was Derrick Rose of the Bulls on Saturday night. Two nights later, several Nets and Cavaliers players wore the shirts before their game in Brooklyn. (There's a good report on how those shirts were produced here.) And one night after that, almost the entire Lakers team wore the shirts.

What about athletes in other sports and leagues?

In college basketball, Georgetown wore the shirts while warming up for Wednesday night's game against Kansas. Three NFL players -- Lions running back Reggie Bush, Browns safety Johnson Bademosi and Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram -- wore similar shirts before their games this past Sunday.

Will more players or teams be doing this?

As of this writing, no other players have publicly announced their intentions on the matter. But the shirts appear to be a growing trend, so it wouldn't be surprising to see more players getting on board.

Have the shirts been worn exclusively by black players?

No. Except for backup center Robert Sacre, all the Lakers wore the shirts Tuesday night, including Jeremy Lin and other non-black players.

Have the NBA shirts been worn on the court during games?

No -- only during pregame warm-ups and on the bench.

Doesn't that violate the NBA's uniform policy because the players are supposed to be wearing team-issued shooting shirts?

Yes, technically speaking.

So, has there been any talk of the players being fined or reprimanded?

For now, the league appears to be adopting a stance of patience edged with mild disapproval, but nothing more serious than that. A league source told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap earlier in the week that the NBA will not fine players for wearing the shirts, and on Monday night NBA commissioner Adam Silver said, "I respect Derrick Rose and all of our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for players to abide by our on-court attire rules."

What do the players' coaches think of all this?

They have all publicly supported the players who've worn the shirts. This quote from Nets coach Lionel Hollins, given to the media after Sunday night's game, is representative: "[The players] should be political. They should be about social awareness. Basketball is just a small part of life. If they don't think that there is justice or they feel like there is something that they should protest, then they should. That is their right as citizens of America, and I have no problem with it at all."

Are the shirts for sale?

Lots of opportunists around the country appear to be selling "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts, but there is no officially NBA-licensed version of the shirt available for sale.

Have there been previous examples of NBA players engaging in uniform-related messaging related to social issues and current events?

Yes. When Clippers owner Donald Sterling's racist comments came to light back in April, Clippers players responded by removing their warm-up tops before a playoff game, leaving them in a pile at center court, then wearing their shooting shirts inside out. They also wore black socks and black armbands during the game. The Rockets showed solidarity with the Clippers by wearing black socks of their own.

But the Donald Sterling situation was basketball-related. Have there been examples of players responding to a social issue that had nothing to do with basketball?

Yes. In March of 2012, Heat players responded to the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by wearing hoodies for pregame warm-ups. Several players on other teams repeated the gesture, including Amare' Stoudemire of the Knicks.

Have athletes in other sports engaged in uniform-driven social messaging?

Yes. The most famous example is probably when American track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black gloves and raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Many other athletes over the years have expressed themselves on social issues by writing small inscriptions on their shoes, caps or other attire.

The typeface on the NBA "I Can't Breathe" shirts is Comic Sans, a notoriously frivolous font that many people find hard to take seriously. Isn't that a bad choice for a serious message?

It does seem a bit incongruous. Oddly, this isn't the first time Comic Sans and LeBron James have intersected: In 2010, after James announced that he was leaving the Cavaliers and joining the Heat, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert posted a rant that was widely mocked for its use of Comic Sans. Apparently nobody connected with the shirts remembered that episode.

Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for ESPN.com since 2004. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.