A black T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” is being worn between two sides of an issue — whether or not athletes have the right to engage in social protest and how school administrators should respond to the decision to protest.
The two questions have persisted in response to athletes at all levels of sports wearing the T-shirts as a form of protest in remembrance of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York, in July after a video captured a police officer putting him in a chokehold. His final words were reported to be, “I can’t breathe.”
And these questions became especially relevant locally after the Uniontown Area girls’ basketball team wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before a home game against Laurel Highlands on Monday, a display which drew concern from Superintendent Dr. Charles Machesky and School Director Susan Clay.
“I do not condone any athletic team entering an arena of interscholastic sports wearing anything other than the standard issue uniforms which were purchased by the school district,” Machesky said Monday.
But several Uniontown Area High School basketball alumni have taken note of the protests, including recent members of the girls’ basketball program.
“When I went to high school, the team had our own shirts made every year, and it wasn’t an issue when we wore shirts that we ordered making fun of Laurel Highlands,” a 2010 Uniontown graduate and girls’ basketball alumna who wished to remain anonymous said. “People are making it into a big controversy, even the school board, when it shouldn’t be a big deal. Racism is a problem, people are speaking out on it. They represent Uniontown, but as a team, they should be able to decide what they want on their T-shirts.”
Even so, she and several of her former teammates wished to remain anonymous given the local sensitivity and controversy surrounding the protest, suggesting that the team taking its stand does, in fact, constitute a “big deal.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with them trying to make a statement about a problem in our country,” another 2010 Uniontown girls’ basketball alumna said.
“I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts became an increasingly common display of protest after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner’s death on Dec. 3. Derrick Rose of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt before a game three days later, and several NBA and NFL players followed suit, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Reggie Bush.
Many college and high school athletes donned the T-shirts too, including the Georgetown men’s basketball team, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team and the Weaver High School boys’ basketball team in Hartford, Conn.
The girls’ basketball team at Mendocino High School in California refused to play at Fort Bragg High School after Fort Bragg banned the shirts, and Fort Bragg later reversed its ban.
Stu Lantz, member of the 1964 undefeated Uniontown boys’ basketball team and current television commentator for the Los Angeles Lakers, said he supports the right of the women’s basketball players to protest peacefully.
“The country is in a period right now where we’re just looking for equality,” Lantz said. “It’s ironic that we’re talking about this in the month of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A peaceful protest is the way to go.”
“It’s beautiful that the students were able to take a stand for something they believed in,” 2011 Uniontown cheerleading alumna Denay Beasley said. “What better way to do it than before a game? We’re not New York or Los Angeles, but I’m actually proud that they were able to show that people in Uniontown can stand up for something and be heard.”
Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League executive director Tim O’Malley said that the WPIAL gives member schools such as Uniontown jurisdiction in governing pregame apparel during the regular season. In postseason play, however, the WPIAL prohibits players wearing any clothing that is not school-issued during pregame activities, so the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, which were supplied by Uniontown booster president Natalie Winfrey, would be in violation of WPIAL rules during playoffs.
WPIAL rules aside, social protest has become increasingly common with young athletes both with and beyond the “I Can’t Breathe” movement, and Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, credits social media for that.
“Social media allows people in Uniontown to get the message out,” Zirin said. “It allows people to take news from the bottom up and not the top down. The news starts in small towns and colleges, gets to big cities and then travels back to small towns again.”
Zirin criticized some school officials’ responses to the “I Can’t Breathe” display, especially Machesky’s claim that high school athletes should not protest “in an arena that is supported by the taxpayers who may not be in agreement with the statement made by the individuals,” noting that the event was a public sphere whose taxpayer support qualifies it as protected by the First Amendment.
With athletes becoming increasingly comfortable engaging in social protest, similar debates over social activism at sporting events are likely to continue.
“I don’t agree that people are doing this just because it’s trendy or because LeBron James did it,” Zirin said. “When you’re young, I think the idea of being connected to a larger social movement can be really inspiring. When I read about Uniontown, that’s what I got out of it. It’s a shame that the superintendent would see something problematic with that.”