- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2014

Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson III takes the teaching aspect of his job description seriously.

His team had wrestled with emotions since it watched from the Bahamas on Nov. 24 as a St. Louis County grand jury refused to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. More emotions stirred on Dec. 3 when a New York grand jury refused to indict New York officers in the July death of Eric Garner.

The decisions fueled international protests, which Thompson and the Hoyas felt burdened to join in some manner.

On Wednesday night, they did.

Players warmed up before the game against No. 10 Kansas at Verizon Center wearing black, short-sleeved T-shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” printed in all-white capital letters, referencing Garner’s last words before his death during an altercation with police officers trying to arrest him.

“There were a variety of reasons why we wanted to wear the shirts,” said Georgetown guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera. “There were quite a few families that lost their loved ones this year: Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin … we wanted to represent those families that all lost. It wasn’t just for this one scenario for a lot of people who know just this one case, I just think we wanted to represent the families and send our condolences that way.”

The gesture, at Georgetown, wasn’t unique. Thompson’s predecessor and father, John Thompson Jr., voiced his approval of the public statement after the game. It was he who walked off the court and drove home prior to a Georgetown game in 1989 to protest NCAA Proposition 42, which Thompson Jr. believed unjustly restricted black athletes’ scholarship opportunities.

“It’s a [freaking] school man,” Thompson Jr. said Wednesday. “It’s your responsibility to deal with things like that.”

Thompson and the Hoyas took time to wrap their minds around their emotions and this issue. Players wanted to wear the T-shirts on Sunday against Towson, but Thompson hit the brakes.

“This isn’t one of those things where you go along just because it’s something that’s trending,” Thompson III said. “We have had a lot of discussions. … I think the group wanted to possibly put ourselves in the position to be a part of a process, to help where there’s positive change, as opposed to just negative reactions.”

Michael Skolnik, a social activist and the editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com, praised the players’ assertiveness and their willingness to take responsibility.

“We constantly say, ‘Young people go get engaged. Or young people, they don’t care. Or young people are passive,” Skolnik said by telephone. “They’re not passive. They’re doing it. Even if you disagree with them, even if you think that everything in this country’s perfect, let’s at least praise folks for having an opinion, voicing it and not being afraid to have the backlash that might come with it, especially college students.

“For this program in the nation’s capital to come out with T-shirts on in support of this family and in support of justice, damn right they deserve a round of applause.”

On Monday — with the assistance of Jay Z, who is the subject of a sociology class at Georgetown — Skolnik helped get “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and several Brooklyn Nets players.

He said that athletes possess a unique influence on the youth, which makes their boldness especially important to causes that tackle social issues.

“They inspire people to get involved in a broader movement,” Skolnik said. “We feel like we got a real shot at improving our criminal justice system so it’s fair and equal for all.”

Thompson used the word “change” to describe the motivation behind the T-shirts. This certainly drew support from a percentage of the student body: Georgetown University Law Center delayed its final exams because many students spent their evenings at protests, rather than libraries, in recent weeks.

Kansas players and coaches also praised the Georgetown players’ gesture, with Jayhawks coach Bill Self noting that it “shows a lot of solidarity.”

“That’s definitely a powerful statement that those guys collectively made,” said Kansas forward Kelly Oubre. “I respect them for doing that, and they did it all as a team, too, so it was something good to watch.”

The reason why players chose to wear the shirts varied, Thompson said. That they chose to do it was unanimous.

“We didn’t wear the shirts to say that the cops were wrong or the system was wrong,” said Georgetown center Josh Smith. “We just wore the shirts to show our condolences to the family because, no matter how you look at it, you don’t know who’s right or wrong, but they still lost somebody.”

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