What do you see, America? What do you see when 13 black males stand before you, their faces partially obscured by hoodies? Do you see a group or a gang? Men or menace? Such a powerful image circulated last week, a kind of team photo never seen before: the Miami Heat players in their black, team-issued hoodies, heads bowed both in mourning and protest over the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager who was shot to death on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla. LeBron James, who came up with the idea along with Dwyane Wade, posted the picture on Twitter last Friday, with the hashtags #WeAreTrayvonMartin, #Hoodies, #Stereotyped and #WeWantJustice. The photo was a statement, but also a question: Look at us, America. Pretend you don't know us as LBJ, D-Wade and friends. Pretend you don't know us at all. What do you see?
Trayvon was killed by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer of Caucasian and Latino descent who apparently found something threatening about a skinny, 17-year-old black kid walking down a street of middle-class townhouses in a hooded sweatshirt. The tragedy became a flash point for age-old anger about the treatment of African-Americans by whites and police. It wasn't just the shooting but also the seeming indifference of investigators. Why, even considering the Florida law that gives wide latitude for the use of force, had Zimmerman not been arrested? Why had police accepted his claim of self-defense even though he was carrying a gun and Trayvon reportedly was packing only Skittles and a can of iced tea? Why had Zimmerman continued to follow Trayvon against the advice of a police dispatcher?
When the Heat photo hit the Internet, it felt as if everyone involved stopped talking for a moment and did a double-take, surprised that athletes would dare join the discussion. We have become accustomed, after all, to players backing away from political and social issues, as if in a prevent defense. Remember when Latino baseball players threatened to boycott the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix to protest a controversial Arizona immigration law? It never happened. Or when Michael Jordan declined to make an endorsement in a hotly contested 1990 North Carolina senate race, reportedly explaining, "Republicans buy shoes too"? Most of the greatest stars—think Jeter, Tiger, Brady—have been alike in their neutrality, as it had been with James and Wade.
Let's be honest: Who knew that James had this in him? More so than most players, he has always seemed to be someone whose off-court concerns extended no further than hanging with entertainers and building his brand—an MVP, a celebrity, a businessman, but hardly an activist. How ironic it is that he finally found his voice by saying nothing. Until now he had projected an image of being self-absorbed and immature, never more so than when he turned his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami into the travesty of The Decision. But this time there was no production, no fanfare, no grand gesture. He simply tweeted the raw, stark photograph and let us interpret it as we wished, like a racial Rorschach test.
In so doing, he and Wade presented the most provocative image of athletes in recent memory, a silent protest reminiscent of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their gloved fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. James and Wade could have publicly made a charitable donation or offered one of those sincere but safe "Our heart goes out to the family...." statements, but to their credit, they went further and risked alienating a portion of their fan base, the people who buy their shoes.
"You never know if that could be your kid," James told reporters after the Heat's game on Friday. Other players, including Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and Suns point guard Steve Nash, quickly followed suit, tweeting pictures of themselves wearing hoodies, and Amar'e Stoudemire went through part of New York's pregame warmups in Toronto on Friday with his hood on.
Some might say that it doesn't exactly take great courage to come out against racism and in favor of justice for a teenager who didn't deserve to die. But since when has it been safe to challenge racial attitudes in America? Athletes of color know that many fans view the minorities they see on the court quite differently from the ones they see on the corner. The Heat photo hints at that uncomfortable truth, which makes some people defensive. "Where is their outrage when the victim and perp are the same color?" one fan tweeted to me last week, as if African-American athletes were somehow obligated to express indignation at every violent crime or none at all.
The answer, of course, is that any murder is an outrage, but this killing, overlaid with its possible racial motivations, strikes a chord with African-American athletes. They have been that kid in the hoodie, automatically judged as suspicious, and not that long ago. When they say that they are Trayvon, they mean exactly that.
So, back to the question. When you look at that photo, America, what do you see? One thing I see is a superstar who has grown up, even as I mourn a teenager who never will.