'Shut Up and Dribble' recalls long history of activist athletes

Give Laura Ingraham an inadvertent assist on "Shut Up and Dribble," a three-part Showtime documentary whose ...

Posted: Nov 2, 2018 1:49 PM
Updated: Nov 2, 2018 1:49 PM

Give Laura Ingraham an inadvertent assist on "Shut Up and Dribble," a three-part Showtime documentary whose title directly quotes the Fox News host, before proceeding to recount the history of athletes -- and especially NBA players -- speaking out on issues. It's a lesson one would hope isn't necessary, but with athletes passing on trips to the White House, that's obviously not the current state of play.

LeBron James was among the targets of Ingraham's ire for criticizing President Trump, and the Lakers star -- who has become increasingly busy as an entertainment mogul -- serves as a producer here, working with, among others, Gotham Chopra, who also directed "Kobe Bryant's Muse."

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Former ESPN anchor Jemele Hill wrote and narrates the documentary, which begins with Bill Russell, who became player-coach of the Boston Celtics at a time when the league still sought to restrict the number of African-Americans on rosters. The film proceeds to document activism into the '60s -- when players rallied around Muhammad Ali's anti-war stance, in a summit organized by football star Jim Brown -- through today, including Colin Kaepernick's silent protest and the Golden State Warriors skipping the traditional post-championship presidential visit.

That is, admittedly, a lot of ground to cover, and even at nearly three hours "Shut Up and Dribble" invariably has a somewhat arbitrary feel to it. Still, the big inflection points paint a cohesive picture -- namely, that sports has never been divorced from politics and what's happening outside the arena, despite efforts to dismiss and diminish the players.

In one of the more interesting detours, it's noted that Michael Jordan wouldn't cooperate with the film, which recounts his reluctance to wade in on political matters. Jordan famously resisted calls to endorse an African-American candidate, Harvey Gantt, engaged in a competitive North Carolina Senate race against Jesse Helms in 1990, reportedly saying, "Republicans buy sneakers too" -- since described as an off-hand reference to his Nike endorsement deal, which nevertheless became a source of criticism.

Foremost, the documentary forcefully drives the point that these questions are nothing new, recalling how Jordan's Chicago teammate Craig Hodges seemingly paid a price for speaking out, and Denver guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's 1996 protest by, yes, not standing for the anthem.

The last chapter also deals with the league's embrace of hip-hop culture, and the eagerness to label players "thugs" during that moment; Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling's racist remarks, and the NBA's decision to banish him; the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement; and President Obama's love of basketball, which forged a strong connection between the NBA and the White House during his presidency.

The pendulum, obviously, has swung sharply backward since the inauguration of President Trump, who has repeatedly criticized African-American athletes, many of whom have publicly responded in kind. For now, the light-hearted White House photo-op has become a casualty of that dynamic.

With "Shut Up and Dribble," James and his collaborators are serving notice -- to Ingraham and everyone else -- that basketball's current generation of stars intend to use their platform for more than just postgame blather. While opponents can obviously reject the ideas, those who would try to cower or silence them, clearly, are playing a losing game.

"Shut Up and Dribble" premieres Nov. 3 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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