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Sports stars are waking up

AP Photo/L.G. Patterson

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 22 Interview Issue. Subscribe today!

AFTER THE BLOOD AND FIRE of Ferguson, the video of a killing in New York that went unpunished and a 12-year-old shot dead in Cleveland, a wave of protest is rapidly defining America, awakening athletes once considered too busy with their stock portfolios to notice much of anything. It isn't just the St. Louis Five, the Rams players united in the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment, but also Saints tight end Ben Watson speaking out on Facebook. It's Pacers forward David West on Twitter, more invested in the black lives that fall at the hands of the police than in how his words might risk his brand. It is LeBron James and the Heat in hoodies after Trayvon Martin's death last year, and Kobe Bryant this year indicting not Michael Brown nor Darren Wilson but an entire broken system of justice that in many ways created both of them.

The awakening represents the arrival of the anti-Jordans, the athlete as a living, breathing, thinking citizen and not just a sneaker pitchman. If the aftermath of September 11 politicized the ballfield by valorizing American militarism, athletes after the non-indictments in Ferguson and New York now reject the public demand of shut up and play. They see that America, divided by race and class, could not be less "post-racial," a term intended to bury yesterday and soften tomorrow. It is an awakening in which some black athletes see no reward for being dutiful front men, for saluting the police as heroes at halftime; they instead see themselves reduced to a pre-racial place, no more American or human for their loyalty, so convinced that black lives don't matter that they've joined the national movement demanding that they do.

These anti-Jordans know their enormous sums of money can shield their children from attending a broken public school system or from living in a neighborhood with no services, no self-determination and no hope. But they also know they cannot shield their friends, their aunts and uncles, from those same realities, and they cannot be sure that following all the rules will keep their loved ones from being shot by police. Money cannot shield players from their own consciences, or from the video of a New York policeman killing Eric Garner with a choke hold. Players' silence has kept them tethered to systems they now find they must protest. Violence has shattered the post-racial myth and finally ended the silence.

Rams receiver Kenny Britt's message on his taped wrists-"Mike Brown" on the right, "My Kids Matter" on the left-directly challenged that tethering, a severing of those ties. The patronizing aftermath-the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded the NFL discipline Britt and his teammates-validated Britt's voice, the massive overreaction connecting protected black players to the abandoned black poor.

The racial divide in this country is most powerfully demonstrated by white America's ironclad belief in a legal system that black America views as hopelessly, oppressively broken. Ferguson flayed open the division. For African-Americans, race is personal, all day, every day, legally and emotionally the defining characteristic of our American existence. For whites, race is often but a topic, one to be debated and engaged or dismissed as whining and tabled for another day. It is a gap that cannot be bridged by flimsily blaming hip-hop culture or demanding that blacks need to be more responsible, for black responsibility is inseparable from blockbusting, redlining, and the other government and cultural forces that created the debilitating conditions in the first place.

The current awakening confronts the intersection of race and power, but if players successfully challenged power by toppling Donald Sterling, and if they now feel emboldened to protest police brutality, domestic violence is a reminder that the activist male player should not get too comfortable. Men must now confront another power, and that power is themselves. The next awakening will be in discovering just how many of these dots players choose to connect, for the trinity of class, race and gender is inseparable. The masculinity system, like the justice system and the racist and classist elements that fuel today's protests, now requires reform. Players' actions will tell us whether they are more than just a commercial. If so, maybe their awakening will be complete.