How athletes have tried to use activism to level the playing field

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a former professional athlete takes on color divisions in sport.

Jeffrey Brown has our look from New York as part of our Race Matters series.

JEFFREY BROWN: A beautiful late summer day on the grounds of the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, New York, tennis' biggest stage in this country, the kind of day that can stir memories.

JAMES BLAKE, Author, "Ways of Grace": This place is so special to me because I was a fan here first.

JEFFREY BROWN: James Blake was born in Yonkers to an African-American father and white British mother. He started playing tennis at 5, alongside his brother Thomas, who also became a professional player.

JAMES BLAKE: I grew up an hour from here, was born less than 30 minutes from here. I was getting autographs of the qualifiers.

JEFFREY BROWN: You did as a kid?

JAMES BLAKE: Yes. I snuck in.

JEFFREY BROWN: They haven't come after you to get the payment yet?

JAMES BLAKE: They haven't come after me. I think I still owe them about $20 or $30 from back tickets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blake more than repaid the sport, becoming a top American star, known for his speed and his power.

He climbed to the world number four ranking in 2006, and retired in 2013 after a 14-year career.

Two years later, awaiting a ride from his Manhattan hotel to be a commentator at the U.S. Open, Blake was thrown to the ground, handcuffed and arrested by a plainclothes New York City police officer. It was caught on a surveillance camera, a case of mistaken identity, for which the New York police commissioner publicly apologized.

MAN: My apologies for the incident which he found himself involved in.

JEFFREY BROWN: But one that drew national headlines and charges of excessive force and racial profiling.

JAMES BLAKE: They have got you cuffed. You don't know what's going on. I know I had done nothing wrong. But while that's going on, you just feel so weak and ineffective, because they are totally in control of the situation. And they know that.

And some of them handle that situation well. Some don't. And the officer that handled this case wasn't handling it well.

JEFFREY BROWN: I assume that you had never experienced anything like that?

JAMES BLAKE: Not to that extent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES BLAKE: I mean, I think almost every person of color at some point in their life has been profiled, whether it be walking into a store or driving your car and you're pulled over for no reason or anything to that extent.

So, I have had instances like that, but never physical — physical violence like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: The incident caused Blake to rethink his own role as a citizen-athlete. He began to speak out about cases of police misconduct, and now has a new book about the efforts work of other athletes, "Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together."

JAMES BLAKE: I want to see some positive headlines about athletes.

And that's what I try to in this book and show that there are athletes that have a social conscience, that aren't just there for the three hours that you watch them on TV. They have lives. They have things that are important and that they are passionate about.

I think so many people focus on LeBron James, was he selfish to go to Miami, was he selfish here? Well, you know what? The guy donated $40 million to education in Akron, in his community, realizing that education is one of the biggest barriers for income disparity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Blake writes of many athletes, including from his own sport, lesser-knowns such as Amir Hadad and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, an Israeli Jew and Pakistani Muslim, who played doubles together at Wimbledon in 2002 and beyond, in the face of opposition.

And more famous names, Arthur Ashe, who spoke out about apartheid and championed civil rights, as well as support for those with HIV/AIDS, which he himself battled. And Billie Jean King, who has accomplished so much for gender equality and social justice in tennis and beyond.

And he writes with sympathy for the most controversial figure today, former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who publicly took a knee during the national anthem before games last year to protest police brutality. He's is now out of football, and Blake and others believe it's because of his public stance.

JAMES BLAKE: People are criticizing him, saying, oh, he makes $15 million, he should just shut up and play.

And I just always have hated that narrative, because it doesn't matter the amount of money that's being paid. You still shouldn't be able to control someone, because then it's just a matter of saying, at what stage are you selling your whole soul, you're selling all your beliefs for a certain amount of money? And I think Colin Kaepernick is showing that he's not for sale.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you understand fans who would say, look, I love and support you, Colin Kaepernick, or athlete XYZ, for what you do on the field, but that's what you're supposed to do, right?

JAMES BLAKE: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's your job.

JAMES BLAKE: Yes. Yes, and I…

JEFFREY BROWN: Don't push your politics on me.

JAMES BLAKE: Yes. Well, fans are absolutely within their right to not go to the games, to say, I'm not going to buy your jersey, to do anything like that.

But I don't think it's really fair to put that on him, because of what he's fighting for, as a lot of veterans have said, that's what we fought for. He has his freedom. And people say, oh, well, you know what, we want sports just to get away from politics. We want it just to be an escape.

Well, it can be an escape for when it's on the field and he's still doing his job on the field. But when he's not forced to be on the field, it's up to him. It's his right. And it's his freedom of speech that he can say and do what he wants, especially since it's peaceful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think there's more responsibility with the higher — the higher profile you are? Because you think about very famous stars of the past, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, people who spoke out.

You think of Michael Jordan, who some people criticized him for not, right…

JAMES BLAKE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … being more connected with the brands and the advertising.

JAMES BLAKE: Well, again, I think it's individual.

And I think it's — we talk about in the book, with the fact that there was a little bit of an era where a lot of people weren't speaking out. Michael Jordan was in that era, where it was, you're going to protect your brand at all costs.

So, I think a lot of people in that time were going to be silent, and they were just going to try to sell shoes.

I don't fault them for that, but I feel like it's shifted. Now, especially with social media, people are going to speak out. And I think, previous to that generation, there was the generation of Muhammad Ali. There was the civil rights movement. There were people that stood for a serious cause.

And it seemed like people thought, athletes maybe thought, hey, we have got it good now. Let's not mess this up.

JEFFREY BROWN: As for himself, Blake settled a lawsuit against the New York Police Department this summer, and got the city to fund a legal fellowship.

JAMES BLAKE: That was a good outcome, exploring cases of police misconduct. You have a fellow on staff for the next six years, two years at a time. So it will be three different ones straight out of law school to fight these kind of cases, because, last year, over 50 percent of them weren't seen to conclusion.

So, now there's someone on staff to help them see these cases through to the end, get whatever payout, get whatever accountability is necessary for the police officers.

It's a start. It's not the end of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in Flushing Meadows, New York.

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