The Georgetown men’s basketball team became the first collegiate basketball team to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-Shirts, prior to its 75-50 loss against No. 10 Kansas on Wednesday.
The phrase, uttered by Eric Garner as he was choked to death by police officers in Staten Island, N.Y., in July has become emblematic of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial profiling. Following the non-indictment of the police officers involved in Garner’s death and the non-indictment of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., protests have sprung up in cities — and arenas — all over the country.
After the game, Head Coach John Thompson III said the protest was something his players had been discussing since they watched the Nov. 26 grand jury announcement in the Ferguson case together in the Bahamas, where the Hoyas were competing in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
“Various people had come up to me separately and finally we had a group discussion about it,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessarily one person who made this happen. It’s something that they wanted to do, so after talking with them … we agreed — I agreed.”
Thompson said his players felt they had a responsibility to do something, but he also emphasized the importance of making sure they understood the weight of their decision to engage in the protest.
“You can go from Patrick Ewing wearing a T-shirt underneath his jersey then it becomes something that everyone does. Allen Iverson braiding his hair then becomes something that everyone does. Kobe wearing the tights, then everyone does it — this isn’t that,” Thompson said.
Thompson also said the team had talked at length about the grand jury decisions and that the team’s emotions surrounding the topics were “all over the place.”
“The emotions are from fear to frustration to confusion to anger,” Thompson said. “[Their emotions are] probably pretty consistent with the emotions across the country right now.”
NBA stars LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Kyrie Irving are some of the highest-profile players to don the shirts in pre-game warm-ups.
“As a society we have to be better for one another no matter what race you are,” James said in his post-game press conference on Monday night, but maintained that his wearing the shirt was a “shout out to the [Garner] family more than anything.”
Senior center Joshua Smith, too, emphasized his support for the families of Brown and Garner.
“We’re aware of what’s going on. We’re not choosing sides, we’re not saying one side is wrong or one side is right,” Smith said. “We’re just saying we’re looking out for the families.”
Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera referenced the families of Garner and Brown, as well as the family of Trayvon Martin, the teen fatally shot in Florida in 2012.
“It was a variety of reasons why we wanted to wear the shirts,” Smith-Rivera said. “We really wanted to represent those families that all lost someone. It wasn’t just this one scenario.”
When a reporter asked Thompson about his father John Thompson II’s history of speaking out about social issues when he was head coach of the team in the 1980s, the elder Thompson, who routinely sits in on post-game press conferences, interrupted from the back of the room.
“It’s a [expletive] school, man,” he said. “That’s your responsibility to deal with things like that. We’re not a … damn pro team.”
Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre Jr., who was Wednesday night’s game, called the protest a “powerful statement.”
“I respect them for doing that, and they did it all as a team, too, so it was something good to watch,” Oubre said.
Kansas Head Coach Bill Self said he did not know about the shirts until after the game because he was not on the court for warm-ups, but said he “didn’t see anything negative” about the protest.
“It’s a pretty strong stance and I think it’s pretty good, and certainly it shows a lot of solidarity amongst their units,” Self said.