An NBA player whose leg was unjustifiably broken in a struggle with NYPD officers could barely crack the headlines in 2015. But it was far more important than the usual sports trivia
On Friday, Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was found not guiltyof disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and misdemeanor obstruction of a government administration. His acquittal on all charges in his case against the New York City Police Department was vindication for the Swiss-born star, whohad his leg broken in an altercation with police earlier this year, causing him to miss the last four games of the regular season and the entirety of the playoffs.
But Sefolosha’s case stretches far beyond his own personal encounter. He took a massive risk going to trial in lieu of a plea deal, a largely unprecedented decision. But in the broadest sense the way the case was largely ignored by sports media revealed far more about our desire to sensationalize trivial issues while avoiding the hardest ones.
At the trial Sefolosha explained the scene on the night of 8 April. According to the 31-year-old, he was walking away from a commotion outside of the 1Oak nightclub in New York City, accompanied by his team-mate Pero Antic (who was also arrested that night but had the charges dropped against him soon after) and two women. Sefolosha said he was followed by officer JohnPaul Giacona who said to him, “With or without a badge, I’m going to fuck you up and I can fuck you up.” Sefolosha claimed he was then attacked when he extended his arm to give money to a homeless person by the name of True.
“Two or three officers were pulling me. I said, ‘Relax.’ They never gave me a direct order. One is pulling on my right. One is pulling on my left and someone had a hand on my neck,” Sefolosha said.
TMZ captured video of the altercation.
The prosecution alleged that the 6ft 7in Sefolosha was disrespectful to law enforcement and that he gestured in a threatening manner towards the police. Likely code for he was a tall black man in a hoodie, as Sefolosha’s lawyer Alex Spiro declared during the trial.
The glaring truth at the center of this case however, revolves around the concept of risk. The gamble that Sefolosha took on by leading the frontline of his own defense, and the risk the media didn’t take by giving the case the coverage it deserved. Here was an NBA player, a key cog in one of the best teams in the league last season, literally getting his leg broken by the police and thereby missing the playoffs, putting his team at a disadvantage. At the very least it should have been a major sports story.
Interestingly enough, it could have all been swept under the rug far earlier as well were it not for Sefolosha’s relentless pursuit of justice. A month ago he was offered a rather favorable deal: plead guilty, face just one day of community service as “punishment,” and he’d have his record expunged. It’s something that would likely be prudent for the average person not wanting to deal with the rigors and risk of a trial against the city, but Sefolosha – knowing he had done nothing wrong – asserted his innocence and rejected the offer. He even said he was willing to testify, something most defendants avoid, as a good prosecutor on the stand can often goad even innocent people into a self-incriminating statement. Had he been convicted he could have spent up to a year in jail and had his reputation tarnished as well, severely harming his chances of playing in the NBA again.
The NBA community has been largely behind Sefolosha for the duration. Antic, who left the league this offseason to play for Fenerbahçe in Turkey, spoke to a Croatian newspaper about the incident earlier this summer.
“We were in a wrong place at the wrong time, but in the NBA, going out isn’t forbidden,” he said. “Thabo went out of a car so he could give $20 to a homeless guy and all of a sudden police started to push him violently. It was pure racism that is spread around America. Thabo is black, all officers were white. We never got explanation for their behavior. Police kills people over there and nothing happens.”
Antic’s candor was in stark contrast to the sports media’s relative dismissal of the situation. Whether it was a concerted effort on the part of major networks and publications to leave the touchy subject of police brutality alone – or if it was a more subconscious negligence, is unknown, but the silence surrounding the issue was deafening.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Sefolosha is a foreigner, maybe if he played in a bigger market or was a higher-profile player there would have been more coverage. Or maybe it’s a result of the many high-profile athletes who’ve had continuous brush-ins with the law; it’s conceivable that the media wanted to wait until the verdict to comment (indeed, commenting on a court case in progress can land journalists in legal trouble themselves). Still, when compared to the way the recent James Blake incident lit up social media, the discourse around Sefolosha was muted to say the least.
The only mainstream reporter who has really been outspoken, not only about the importance of the case but also the media’s silence on it, has been ESPN’s Bomani Jones, who vented about the lack of coverage earlier this week on his radio show.
While trivial drama like the recent Stephen A Smith-Kevin Durant spat and the Derek Fisher-Matt Barnes love triangle grab the headlines, a far more important story has been cast aside. Legal experts filled TV networks as they covered Deflategate ad nauseam, yet the media was reluctant to afford the Sefolosha case the same stringent level of reporting.
Perhaps the sports media isn’t ready to serious tackle the problems associated with race and police force, and would prefer to avoid fractious issues that could polarize their readers and viewers.
However, we should aim to do better. It can’t be enough to support athletes only on the court or the field. The NBA has a history of moving in lockstep with black culture in the US, far more so than the other major sports. From the style off the court, to the players on it, no other sport so closely represents many of the elements that make up Black America. Many would have expected more coverage from a case that reflected so many aspects of African Americans lives.
Inevitably, issues that affect the black community intertwine with those that affect the players in the NBA and that should be examined with the same depth and nuance as we give to debates about dunks, blocks and efficient field goal percentages – especially when the social and sports worlds intersect as they did here.