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Etan Thomas on the Campbell Conversations

Tom Fazzio
Syracuse University
Etan Thomas

Social activism by prominent athletes, particularly regarding issues that involve race, has taken off in the past year. It's generated comparisons with the activism from the 1960s. This week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher talks with Etan Thomas, a social commentator, 11-year NBA veteran and former Syracuse University basketball star. He's written a new book called We Matter: Athletes and Activism.

Interview Highlights

Reeher: Tell me about the decision to write this book. How did you decide to write it?

Thomas: There was a lot going on in society. And a lot of athletes were using their positions and platforms kind of in an unprecedented way. Course, we saw this a lot in the ‘60s…but then you saw athletes who might have not really spoken out quite often start to speak out. And I just wanted to capture it. There was a lot going on with police brutality. I think that was really one of the things—the catalyst—that really pushed a lot of athletes to really be able to use their platforms. And I want to just capture it all in the book.

Reeher: Tell me how you went about writing it. It was based on interviews, but how did you approach it? How did you set it up?

Thomas: It affected me personally a lot as well, seeing what happened. I think Trayvon Martin was really a major thing that really kind of gripped everybody, and it gripped me as well. My son, Malcom, he’s 12 years old now, but…I always say it that if I put a hoodie on Malcom, he’d look just like Trayvon Martin…That’s kind of what I saw as kind of the catalyst to really start this path of a new resurgence of athletes and activism and athletes using their platforms and speaking out, and it just kind of went on from there…I just wanted to touch on it all in the book.

Reeher: What do you hope the book helps to do? Do you have specific goals for it?

Thomas: I really wanted to encourage the future athletes to really be able to be inspired and hear the stories of athletes from yesteryear and current athletes of how they’re using their positions and their platforms because that’s the way I was inspired when I was younger…I want the same next generation to be influenced the same way by the current athletes.

Reeher: How does this—both the responsibility for social activism and also the risks involved in doing it—how do you think that plays out for athletes at the college level, and even maybe at the high school level?...There are pressures that athletes at that level are under that might be different from a professional athlete.

Thomas: I think one of the things that you’re seeing right now, especially after that thing with Kaepernick as far as taking the knee, and you’re seeing these high school athletes across the country who’re taking a knee but then expressing their reasons of why they’re taking a knee, and not just high school athletes; you’re looking at high school students, what the students are doing right now in Florida…They’re having their voices be heard. They’re not even saying that they’re young, their high school students, who’s going to listen to them. They’re banning together, and they’re doing things where people are forced to listen to them. And that’s the beauty of activism…That’s why what we’re seeing, especially with young people all across the country right now, is really beautiful to see them using their voices the way that they are.

Reeher: I wanted to get your thoughts about President Trump getting involved in this national conversation about activism and athletes. He’s done it in a pretty direct and often times fairly unvarnished way…What are your thoughts about this?

Thomas: I think it was interesting. One of the things I wanted to do with the book was to get it back to the reason why athletes were actually protesting…It wasn’t about the flag. It wasn’t about the military. Kaepernick pretty much listed the reasons of why he was taking a knee. He said he was protesting political corruption…He talked about systemic racism, and he talked about police brutality. And then, somehow, it got transferred to being about the military and about the country. And that’s really what Donald Trump really did, and what I really wanted to do with this book is take it back to what it really was about.

Reeher: Reading in your book, the conversations that you’ve had with your son appear frequently in the book, your renditions of those. What was the hardest thing in all of this for you to explain to him?

Thomas: Just that things aren’t fair sometimes. There’s no other way that I could say it…“You’ll see different situations where you’ll see on TV other people will do things that you can’t get away with, that I can’t get away with, and that’s just the way it is.” It’s a tough pill to really swallow, especially for a 12-year-old who wants to look at the world in Disney-colored glasses where everything is just fair and everything is equal and everybody is treated equally…“We just have to know that there are certain things that we just can’t do. It’s not fair, but we can’t do.” He’s looking at the different cases like right now, like I said, the mass shooter in Florida. He just slaughtered 17 people, and they took him alive. The rules are different sometimes. And it’s just a tough pill to swallow.

Reeher: This is kind a sharper-edged version of this question, but…I feel like I have to ask it. Is this problem though something that we can talk our way out of? I mean, if we talk long enough, we’re going to solve this?

Thomas: It’s not just talk. There’s a lot of different variables of it. Talking is one thing because number one, I can say the police has to be able to look at young black males they’re in contact with as humans, not as targets…There used to be a thing of community policing, and I’m a big proponent of community policing where the policemen actually live in the community, they’re part of the community, and then they have an invested interest in what happens in the community…Sometimes, only from the policemen standpoint, they’re looking at whatever they’ve gone through…and they see a young black male—they immediately see a target. The problem is the young black males that they’re seeing as targets are getting younger and younger and younger. And it’s a scary thought as a father…There are different ways [to solve this]. It’s something that can be frustrating, but you can’t give up. 

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.