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No, Athletes Will Not 'Shut Up And Dribble' — And They Never Have

Oscar Robertson is one of the athletes who's interviewed in the new documentary series <em>Shut Up and Dribble</em>.
Oscar Robertson is one of the athletes who's interviewed in the new documentary series Shut Up and Dribble.

The new documentary series Shut Up and Dribble, which premiered the first of its three parts this weekend on Showtime, is a response to commentator Laura Ingraham's dismissive February 2018 sneer in the direction of LeBron James, one of the series' executive producers. Don't take my word for it that it's a direct response: watch the opening sequence in which Ingraham, disgusted by James and other black athletes speaking out against President Donald Trump, says that nobody elected them, nobody wants to hear from them, and they should, yes, just "shut up and dribble."

The idea that athletes — or actors, or writers — shouldn't be politically active in the public sphere is surprisingly widely held. The point of the series is to demonstrate that in the case of black athletes, holding the game at a distance from the society in which it's played is not only contrary to history but impossible. And, perhaps, that it would be irresponsible.

Narrated by writer Jemele Hill and directed by Gotham Chopra, Shut Up And Dribbleuses its first installment to chronicle several of professional basketball's early standouts who collided with the wider world in different ways: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Isaiah Thomas. It follows the NBA through a period in the 1970s when some worried that the increasing number of black players was alienating white audiences — a crisis the end of which it credits to the hugely popular rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. To that picture, Shut Up and Dribbleadds the story of the Detroit Pistons and of Thomas, whose comments on how racism influenced the perception of Bird became very controversial, to the point where the broader observation he was making — about who is considered simply a "natural talent" and who is considered a "smart player" — was lost.

People who have watched a lot of NBA documentaries, or who have watched projects like O.J.: Made in Americathat try to look at the intersection of sports and the world at large, will know a good number of these stories, maybe including the stories of Russell and Robertson, and how Bird was called "the great white hope" whether he wanted to be or not, and how his rivalry with Johnson had — as one commentator wildly understates it — a "tinge" of racial dynamics in it. But there are good segments in the first installment that might be less familiar about the way the ABA and the NBA presented basketball very differently, the way labor issues among players were (and are) inextricably linked to race, and the way Abdul-Jabbar — now a columnist, a comic book writer, and a writer on the upcoming revival of Veronica Mars — decided to decline to try out for the 1968 Olympics.

The next two installments follow the NBA through later phases, up to the present. They consider the era of Michael Jordan and the explosion of endorsement deals — which, the film's interviewees suggest, tamped down public discussions of politics as protection of each athlete's personal brand became critical. They examine the career of Allen Iverson, whose path to the NBA — and his clothes and hair and tattoos and connections to hip-hop — made him a beloved figure to a lot of fans who perhaps didn't relate to Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.

Critically, the series at one point turns its attention to the 2004 Pacers-Pistons fight — the one that spilled into the stands — that led to long suspensions, including for Metta World Peace (who then went by Ron Artest). It's a necessary chapter in part because it's impossible to consider the public activism, and the significance of public activism, of black athletes without recalling how easily after this incident commentators slipped into calling players "thugs," and how that fight seemed to surface ugly attitudes about players that had been simmering in sports media and in the NBA itself. Again, players have never had the option of shutting up and dribbling; they, like everyone, live and work in a particular social context. And it's a context in which racism affects the way they're talked about, the way they're treated, and the way their behavior is received.

And yes, we eventually reach the Obama years, and then the 2016 election. We reach Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, and we learn that LeBron James' decision to go to the Miami Heat — not the ill-advised TV special, but the choice itself — may have affected the power balance between players and owners in a way that's made activism for players safer. That, of course, goes back to Oscar Robertson's fight for free agency chronicled in the first episode, too.

This is what good documentaries do: they provide an overview, but they also make interesting connections between specific pieces of the story. While it's about activism and racism, much of this series is about power. Power accumulated by players, whether it's the economic power of endorsements or the bargaining power of free agency, directly enables them to use their platforms without worrying that they'll be, for instance, let go from their teams and unable to get new jobs because a political stand they consider crucial proves to be unpopular, or makes them targets. An unspoken thesis of the series is that the concept of athletes not belonging in politics is about discomfort with, and resentment of, that considerable power.

It's a strange idea, this expectation that players must entertain and not speak. The NBA is a business that makes ridiculous money for mostly white owners from the work of many black athletes. It's fed by the NCAA, which makes ridiculous money for schools from the work of many black athletes. It's covered by a disproportionately white sports media, and it's regulated by a mostly white political system. Shut Up and Dribbleis a good exploration of all the ways that black athletes couldn't remain apart from racism or politics even if they wanted to — which, as it happens, many of them don't.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.