Commentary

The Heat's hoodies as change agent

The photo released in protest of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a landmark moment

Updated: March 26, 2012, 6:16 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- We are Trayvon Martin.

That was the Twitter hashtag to what I would now consider to be LeBron James' most clutch moment. Led by James and Dwyane Wade, several members of the Miami Heat posed together for a photo in hooded sweatshirts before Friday's game against the Detroit Pistons. Their heads were bowed. Their faces were hidden.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonLeBron's statement went beyond the hoodies. He also wrote a message honoring Trayvon Martin on his sneaker Friday night.

But their intent was clear.

James tweeted that photo to the world Friday afternoon, making the Heat the most prominent collection of black athletes to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen who was shot to death late last month in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood watch volunteer. When police found Martin, he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.

Tweeting such a striking photo was incredibly significant. It is a reverberating indication of how much Martin's death has struck a chord -- especially with black men, many of whom have interpreted the shooting as a blatantly racist act and a reminder that they are still perceived as a threat.

Since Martin's death, there have been conversations filled with outrage, sorrow and confusion taking place nationwide. How could George Zimmerman shoot an unarmed 17-year-old who was walking home from the store because -- as Zimmerman told a 911 operator -- he "looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something"?

What exactly does "no good" look like?

Zimmerman claimed self-defense and, despite contradictory accounts from witnesses and chilling 911 calls that appear to refute Zimmerman's story, he has not been arrested or charged because Sanford police claim there wasn't sufficient evidence to counter what Zimmerman told them. There have been protests for days in Sanford, which is 20 miles outside Orlando, and throughout the country.

"It almost brought me to tears," said Gary Sheffield, who played 21 seasons in major league baseball and is frequently in Orlando because he is a Magic season-ticket holder. "When you got sons and you hear about stuff like this, it frightens you. If my kids walk out of this house, they might not come back."

A special prosecutor has been appointed to review the case, and the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI are now involved; but, as the legal side sorts out, the intense, emotional response from the sports world has become a noteworthy subplot.

It's not just the Heat who felt compelled to make a public call for justice. The NBA Players Association issued a statement calling for Zimmerman's arrest. Players from every major sport are using social media to voice their outrage, from Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles to Carmelo Anthony. Following a now-popular trend on Twitter, Anthony's teammate, Amare Stoudemire changed his Twitter avatar to a picture of himself in a hoodie. So did New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck. Charlotte Bobcats guard D.J. Augustin put Martin's name on his sneakers, which he wore in Friday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Ray Lewis, who is from Florida and has three sons who live in Sanford, has contacted the Martin family and expressed his support.

In a time when athletes rarely make such poignant, public protests, this special development has proved once again that sports remains a powerful instrument for change and awareness. Years from now, we might look back on the Heat's photo as an iconic image, perhaps even as a catalyst toward justice.

[+] EnlargeGary Sheffield
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images Gary Sheffield, a regular at Orlando Magic games, has already spoken to his son about confrontations.

"We've all had some situations where we felt race was an issue," said Daryl D. Parks, a partner in Parks & Crump LLC, which is representing Martin's family. His comments came in a wide-ranging interview about the case with board members of the National Association of Black Journalists on Saturday. "I think it's a matter of [athletes] identifying with Trayvon and identifying with what happened."

They look at their sons and see Trayvon, a boy with a broad, easy smile. They pray that, when their boys walk through the gated communities their talents have afforded them, that someone somewhere isn't viewing their kids with unease.

Or that the person viewing them doesn't also have a loaded gun.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men ages 15 to 29. It doesn't matter whether you're wealthy and in a gated community or whether you have athletic ability, being a black man is a health risk.

Ryan Moats, an NFL running back, is Trayvon Martin. A police officer named Robert Powell pulled a gun on him and his wife in a hospital parking lot as his mother-in-law died inside.

"I can screw you over," the officer said at one point in the videotaped incident. When another officer came with word that Moats' mother-in-law was indeed dying, Powell's response was: "All right. I'm almost done."

Robbie Tolan, a 23-year-old minor league baseball player, is Trayvon Martin. Tolan was shot in the chest by police in his own driveway in Bellaire, Texas, an affluent, mostly white suburb of Houston.

[+] EnlargeTrayvon Martin Rally
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariCalls for justice were plentiful at a rally in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

According to reports, Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper, were confronted by police outside Tolan's home on New Year's Eve after making a late-night run for fast food. Cooper and Tolan were both unarmed, but, as the men walked up the driveway, a police officer emerged with a flashlight and a gun and ordered them to lie on the ground. Cooper told reporters he and Tolan didn't know the man was a police officer. Tolan said his parents came outside when they heard the disturbance, and one of the officers allegedly pushed Tolan's mother up against the garage. Tolan said he yelled at the officer "to get his hands off his mama," then was shot in the chest. The bullet pierced Tolan's lung and lodged in his liver. He spent a few weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

Sheffield is Trayvon Martin, too. One night when he was 16 years old, he was hanging out in Tampa with his famous baseball-playing uncle, Dwight Gooden. According to Sheffield, the police pulled over Gooden, who was driving a brand-new Mercedes. Sheffield was following him in a Corvette, another one of Gooden's cars.

"We were going to a USF basketball game, and the police felt like they needed to start following us," Sheffield said. "I just saw Dwight go to the ground, and there were eight to 10 cops surrounding him. When I saw that, I went into protective mode. We didn't do anything. We just had nice cars."

Sheffield and Gooden got into a physical altercation with officers and were arrested for fighting with police and resisting arrest. In 1990, Sheffield filed a complaint against Tampa police after another run-in. Police later said they stopped the car because they believed it belonged to a drug dealer, but would not say who that was.

As a father, Sheffield has had the conversation that, sadly, all black parents must have with their sons. "Here's what to do if you're ever confronted because someone deems you 'suspicious.'"

Because Trayvon Martin isn't an exception. He is the reality.

"They're not allowed to wear their pants hanging down their butt," Sheffield said. "I tell them, 'When someone approaches, tell them your name and where you live, but don't ever get into "Why did you stop me?" or "Why did you pull me over?" Leave that to me.'"

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