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Former Tennis Player James Blake On Athletes And Activism


American tennis star James Blake was once ranked No. 4 in the world.



MARTIN: That's him beating Roger Federer at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Blake retired in 2013 but was in the news again a couple years later, when he was tackled and handcuffed by a white, plain-clothed police officer in New York City. Blake is African-American and had been mistaken for someone wanted for credit card fraud.

JAMES BLAKE: I saw someone running towards me. And then, before I knew it, I was on the ground. He had taken me down and put his knee in my back. And he didn't - never said, officer - never said NYPD. He just said, keep your mouth shut; do what I say.

MARTIN: The incident was captured on surveillance video outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where Blake had been staying. At the time, he was waiting for a car to take him to the U.S. Open. It was only when other police officers showed up with visible badges that it became clear to him that they were law enforcement. When officers realized their mistake, they let him go.

BLAKE: Once I got in the car to go to the Open is when I immediately called my wife. And that's when I realized how big a deal this was. I'm an athlete. I've been taught to be the tough guy. And I wanted to just sweep this under the rug. And I just told her I was angry, but I'm going to, you know, just go about my day. And she just said, what if this happened to me?

And it immediately hit me. And I started actually tearing up a little bit and thinking about what I would have done if this happened to someone I loved. After that, it definitely changed my perspective and made me a little bit more defiant.

MARTIN: A civilian complaint review board found that the officer had used excessive force. Blake also sued the city. But instead of seeking a big payout, he asked for a legal fellowship to be set up, within the NYPD, focused on investigating police misconduct. And he got it. Blake has just written a book about his own experience and of other sports stars who have taken on social issues. It's called "Ways Of Grace." Many of these stories you will know - Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe. But James Blake also tells stories of people we don't often hear about, like baseball catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker.

BLAKE: Yeah, Moses Fleetwood Walker was a bit of a precursor to Jackie Robinson. Him and his brother played back before the turn of the century. And they were the first African-Americans, really, to play in the big leagues - although the big leagues were quite different at that time. And Jackie Robinson faced unbelievable hardships through his time. But before him, there were others fighting to get even to that point.

And Moses Fleetwood Walker was one of those. And he faced, obviously, horrible discrimination as well. And, you know, it took 50 years from when he was in the league until Jackie Robinson got there. So I think it's also a message that - don't lose hope when the fight for civil justice - for equality is taking longer than you expect. Don't lose hope because it hopefully will continue going towards the - you know, the right side of history.

MARTIN: We all know the famous photograph of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Summer Olympics - the sprinters accepting their medals barefoot, hands in the air. There was a third man on the platform that day, a white Australian named Peter Norman. And some will know his story, but many will not. He stood there in solidarity with Smith and Carlos. He wore this badge that indicated that he was with them in that moment. And he paid a price for doing so. Can you tell us what ended up happening to him?

BLAKE: Yeah, he was sort of an activist just by being in that place, at that time because both John Carlos and Tommie Smith asked him, right before they went on the podium - he saw what was going on - you know, what are you guys doing? And then they asked, do you believe in human rights? And he said, well, of course I do. And then they asked him to wear this pin that supported human rights. And he thought he was doing something very positive. And when he went back to Australia, he was basically blackballed and shunned until he - unless he basically...

MARTIN: He was asked to kind of rescind his support of that gesture in that moment.

BLAKE: Yeah, exactly. He had to rescind his gesture. And he wouldn't do that. And I think that took a very strong man. And unfortunately, he was never allowed to race again under the Australian flag. He was barred from other events. He wasn't even invited to the Sydney Olympics, when they were there - even though he's been their greatest sprinter ever - and turned to alcoholism and, unfortunately, passed away, with John Carlos and Tommie Smith being pallbearers at his funeral. They remained close throughout their entire lives. So I wanted to, you know, just sort of highlight that story and Peter Norman.

MARTIN: Yeah. So athletes do have this incredible platform, but do you believe they always bear a responsibility?

BLAKE: No, I don't believe they bear a responsibility that they have to do this in any way. It's just if they want to do this, they should become educated about it. Just because someone tells you, hey, you know, this is a cause that means a lot to me. I want you to go out and say something because you've got a press conference coming up. No, if it doesn't ring true, I think fans are going to see through that. And I think you're going to have a tough time continuing that.

But if something really does bring you to tears or gives you this kind of emotion, or it's something that you feel is an injustice, and you need to speak out, then, yeah, you have a platform. You might be, you know, a sixth person on a bench in the NBA, but you've got a million Twitter followers. Well, you have a voice.

MARTIN: Is it fair to say that what happened to you, outside that New York hotel, shook you out of a form of complacency? Did it awaken something new in you that hadn't been there before?

BLAKE: Yeah, it definitely woke something up in terms of being able to speak out about it because it's just, I think, the way society is now - like a 24-hour news cycle, and then there's something new to be outraged about. So it kind of loses its thunder a little bit. It's that - you know, that - you're on a bed of nails. Not one ever pokes through. But you've got so many little - you know, little pricks.

And for me, this one was - it was the nail that went through because it made me realize that I need to speak out. I need to talk about this problem in society - this issue that we should all be aware of. And so it definitely got me thinking about what I can do to hopefully help others that don't have the same voice that I have.

MARTIN: The book is called "Waves Of Grace: Stories Of Activism, Adversity And How Sports Can Bring Us Together." It was written by James Blake. James, thanks so much.

BLAKE: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that a legal fellowship to investigate civilian complaints will be established within the New York City Police Department. It will, in fact, be a community outreach fellowship run by the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 28, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that a legal fellowship to investigate civilian complaints will be established within the New York City Police Department. It will, in fact, be a community outreach fellowship run by the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board.