On April 8, two Atlanta Hawks players, Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antic, were arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and a few other misdemeanors because they allegedly tried to prevent police from setting up a crime scene outside a Manhattan night club where Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland and two other people were stabbed in a separate incident.
TMZ published multiple videos from bystanders in the days that followed that showed extremely heated and aggressive actions by as many as five officers as they took Sefolosha to the ground. One of them even brandished his night stick and took a swing at him while he had a face full of asphalt.
Those videos compounded the announcement from the Hawks that Sefolosha suffered a broken fibula and ligament damage that went untreated as he sat in a jail cell that night, and last Tuesday, he publicly stated the police caused those injuries.
The tactics used and the conflicting accounts from what the police report says and what the videos show have prompted investigations from NYPD’s Internal Affairs bureau and the NBA Players Association.
On a larger scale, this story has brought the emotional issue of police brutality and the abuse of power into the realm of sports.
In the past year we’ve seen cases in a similar vein find increasingly more time in the limelight, with the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City as the two biggest fueling the debate.
This story gets added to the list of social issues that formerly were only whispered about, but now have finally reached an audible and substantial level in this country.
When Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson dominated national headlines last fall, we started talking about domestic abuse and disciplining children in ways we never had before.
Stories that focused on sports figures started spilling out into other sections of the newspaper. They became catalysts for conversations that society had always shied away from but now had the right context to bring everyone into the discussion.
People were forced to look inward and take hard stances, publicly, for the first time. Whether it was at dinner with your family, on social media, at the water cooler at work, at your monthly book club, at parties, at bars — wherever — the conversations came up and everyone shared their opinion.
The addition of photo and video has broadened our perspective to not only how we receive information, but how we perceive it.
We now see Janay Rice get punched by her husband in the elevator of a casino. We now see the excessive lashes on the body of Peterson’s son after he was disciplined with a switch. We now see Garner get choked to death on the sidewalk. We now see Sefolosha get flung around by a heated group of police officers.
Sports are the ultimate unifier, and we’ve all been touched by them in some fashion, even if it’s in the smallest imaginable way.
They can effect change when prominent figures of society — whom millions idolize — draw attention to controversial topics.
That’s why the Miami Heat took photos with their hoodies up after Trayvon Martin saw no justice. That’s why members of the St. Louis Rams walked out of the tunnel with their hands up when a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. That’s why NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-ups after a grand jury failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo. That’s why the NCAA nearly had a heart attack two weeks ago when people around the country pushed for a boycott of the Final Four in Indianapolis in response to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Sports can mobilize the masses, and has the ability to bring people together from the pros all the way down to pee-wee.
However the investigations and legal process play out for Sefolosha and Antic, one thing is for sure: It’s kept the discussion going and brought it to a new stage.
Accompanied by the front-page story of Charleston, South Carolina, officer Michael Slager getting charged with murder after shooting Walter Scott in the back later that week, maybe the wheels have finally started turning regarding this problem.
Or, we may have to wait for more hard luck to fall on a prominent figure again so it can change things for the rest of us.