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Purpose of "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts

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LeBron, Kyrie Wear "I Can't Breathe" Shirts (1:53)

LeBron James talks about himself and Kyrie Irving wearing "I can't breathe" T-shirts during warm-ups before the Cavaliers' game against the Nets. (1:53)

Whatever quibbles there may be about NBA players wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during pregame warm-ups -- the players should have a clearer agenda, shouldn't break NBA rules about dress, etc. -- let's not lose the overarching point: They're steering the conversation in the right direction.

The shirts, a reference to the final words Eric Garner uttered before he died after a chokehold was applied by an arresting police officer, have brought questions to the players wearing them. Players like Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have brought clarity to the issues. The disparity between the significance of black lives and the power of the police has reached "a tipping point," as Bryant called it. That is the larger implication of the deaths of Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson. It is about lost lives, the sorrow of the families, the public policies that need to be addressed.

The players, much to their credit, have retained clarity on those points.

After wearing the shirt as he warmed up before facing the Nets in Brooklyn on Monday night, James said, "It's more of a shoutout to the family, more than anything, because they're the ones that should be getting all the energy and effort."

Bryant, noting the way the movement has spread beyond the immediate communities and even the 48 contiguous United States, said: "It's become a thing where people standing up for their rights, they're really questioning the justice system, they're questioning the process of the legal system and those who have authority and whether or not they're abusing authority, and what's the threshold to use that force, and so forth and so on.

"But that's what our nation was founded on. We have the ability to question these things, and in a peaceful fashion. And that's what makes us a great country."

The Lakers wore the shirts before their game against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, and many wore them while on the bench.

"We just, as a team, wanted to step up and show our support for the community," Carlos Boozer said. "We're not 'promoting criminals.' That's not what it's about. We're promoting humanity. We can treat each other better, regardless of what the situation is."

I applaud their refusal to be sidetracked.

There are those who say NBA players make too much money, or in some cases weren't raised in the ghetto, and therefore should stay out of it ... as if a tax bracket could disqualify anyone from compassion.

There are those who want to turn the conversation toward the small minority of protestors who resorted to violence ... as if this country didn't have a history of violent responses to taxation, the abolition of slavery and the integration of schools.

The most off-base are the people willing to write off the deaths of Brown and Garner because they had allegedly broken the law. That ignores the most fundamental premise of our legal system, which holds that a man is innocent until it has been proven to a jury that he has committed a crime. Brown and Garner never even got a trial. That leaves "innocent" as their default status as they go to their graves. But it renders that same legal system suspect when the officers who indisputably caused their deaths are not brought to trial themselves.

That's what caused the anger, the turmoil, the pervading sense that something needs to be done. These NBA players heeded the call through their statements. (Oh, and please don't call what they did a protest. A protest is a work stoppage or a sit-in or a march through the streets. A protest is not a jog through the layup line wearing a T-shirt.)

What's missing from the actual protests that have sprung up across the nation is a specific agenda. For all the soaring rhetoric in Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, it also contained tangible goals: that people of all races could sit at tables together, hold hands together, head to the voting booths together.

I don't know what is more stunning to think about: that those ideas were more fantasy than reality for African-Americans as recently as 1963, or that five decades later the request is an even simpler plea to be able to survive interactions with the police.

We've heard a call for more body-worn cameras on police officers, but if the video recording of the chokehold and takedown of Garner couldn't bring an indictment, how much difference would more cameras make? The threshold for what constitutes the justifiable use of lethal force needs to be addressed. There's a difficult balance between the safety of civilians and the police officers entrusted to protect them that needs to be found.

Athletes likely can't fix all of that by themselves -- it's on politicians, police, civil rights leaders and all of us to devise real fixes. Athletes, though, with their high profiles and influence, can help to ask the right questions, which is precisely what players like Rose, Bryant and James have done.