“Shut up and dribble.”
“We don’t care about you, n-----.”
“We don’t care about you.”
Messages like this quickly replaced the fire emojis I’m used to in my Instagram notifications. As an athlete who uses his voice to speak about social-justice issues on social media, I’ve received some repulsive comments. But nothing prepared me for the barrage of death threats I would receive after addressing a microaggression I experienced on live TV.
As a Harlem Globetrotter, part of my role is to connect with audiences through local and national media. Usually, I talk about what fans can expect in upcoming basketball games. But in 2020, while doing a live TV interview, someone threw a banana at me. I was totally caught off guard. I’d never experienced something like this. I didn’t know what to say or feel in the moment, but I was embarrassed, and I knew this was wrong.
Across the globe, Black athletes have been on the receiving end of an airborne banana. This happens during live games, and it’s been going on for decades. It’s a racist trope suggesting Black athletes are equivalent to monkeys.
I spent several months feeling anxious and defeated. I debated whether I should speak out, because I was fearful of people publicly berating me. When I found the strength to express my feelings, people called me many things. But the words “monkey” and “n------” were frequently dropped.
Regardless of the intent, microaggressions are real and can be damaging to the psyche. My experience is small in comparison to the struggles others have endured, but it taught me one of the most important lessons of my life.
Instead of shrinking from the moment, I combined my passions for art and social justice to discover a deeper form of expression. The “Art of an Athlete” is a collection of artwork I created to celebrate athletes who use their platform to fight injustice. It honors the ability to shape our own narrative beyond sports. It honors the athletes who jeopardized, and even sacrificed, their careers to be a voice for the voiceless. It honors athletes’ commitment to their community, even when their safety was at risk. The artwork calls for respect and regard for athletes’ humanity beyond the uniform. Art can spark important conversations. Sports are an ultimate unifier. What I produce on the court and the canvas are expressions of who I am. But my job as an athlete doesn’t eclipse my responsibility or connection to my community.
For athletes, there’s no level of fame or fortune exempting us from racism. How can you shout, “Play for us,” from the stands, but ignore our struggles and issues? Could it be because our words invoke change you’re not ready for? Do our words threaten the privileges you’ve been afforded? What happens on the field may give you an escape from your real-world issues, but often we are not afforded that same luxury. We’re expected to entertain from inside the lines, but can’t stand up for issues some of you perpetuate beyond the bleachers. It stands true even when we work to change the world for people who look like us, but don’t have the platform to advocate for themselves.
For much of my life, I have waited for examples to follow. But my experience has shown me the true power of my voice. Even in the midst of a situation that could cause many people to lose their composure, I’ve learned being intentional with my reaction rather than impulsive can lead to meaningful dialogue.
I’m standing on the shoulders of athletes who’ve made it easier for me to speak out without losing my livelihood. For that, I am forever indebted.
Maxwell Pearce is a professional athlete, artist and activist. The “Art of an Athlete” exhibit debuts 6 p.m. Dec. 2 at N’namdi Contemporary Fine Art, 6505 NE Second Ave. Miami.