From Athlete to Activist

After spending nine years in the NBA, Etan Thomas is making an impact around the world as an activist through his motivational speeches and influential books on social activism.

By Chris Rosvoglou

Sports contain a plethora of amazing athletes that perform at the highest level in the world, but lost in the shuffle is the power for these players to make a significant change on the world we all live in. While their athletic accomplishments are astounding, making an impact that doesn’t pertain to just sports is a far greater achievement.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham made headlines when she used the phrase “shut up and dribble” toward NBA superstar LeBron James on-air. Despite his achievements on the hardwood and in his hometown of Akron, the All-Star forward’s opinion wasn’t considered smart because of his profession.

Over the past few years, racial inequality continues to be put on display. Whether a person of color is getting treated unfairly by the police or minorities are receiving unnecessary hatred, it’s become very apparent that society still discriminates against one another.

Social activism takes on many forms, yet its intention to make change around the world never changes. Fortunately for the basketball community, Etan Thomas has focused on a larger impact on society than he did on the court.

Etan Thomas exchanges works with basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo courtesy of Nyles Bodger)

Thomas spent nine years in the NBA, but his biggest contribution to sports is coming from his non-athletic acts. From releasing a book in 2005 called “More Than An Athlete” to writing poems and essays about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, Thomas has found multiple ways to let his voice be heard.

But before Thomas turned into one of the biggest activists in the world of sports, the former first-round pick learned an important lesson from his mother, Deborah Thomas. “My mom taught me about the athlete activist pioneers when I was younger,” he said. “She gave me books on Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, John Carlos, which was why it was such an honor to have been able to interview them for my book “We Matter Athletes And Activism.”

For Thomas, he’s valued his opportunity to make a true difference in the world. In September 2005, Thomas spoke out at an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. At the time it might have seemed like an unusual occurrence for the Syracuse alum, but it was just the beginning of his work on the political and social scale.

Thomas went on to write a number of blog posts, which have appeared on The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and ESPN. His articles usually cover the lack of unity between professional sports leagues and their players. In 2009, Thomas won the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation, Inc. Legacy Award for his courage to stand for what he believes in, which was before he even hit the ground running with his contributions to society.

Over the past decade, Thomas has let his voice be heard, yet he believes today’s generation has an easier path to raising awareness for the social issues.

“I believe there has been a resurgence of athletes using their voices and their platforms like the athletes of the past were doing, and it’s beautiful to see. Athletes have even more power now because of social media,” Thomas said. “They don’t have to find some reporter who wants to publicize their story, opinion, position or belief. They can bypass all of that and do it themselves and reach the masses.”

When discussing a sensitive topic such as social injustice, it takes courage and the ability to stand your ground.

“Every athlete who has ever spoken out has been criticized, it comes with the territory and should be expected. But what also should be expected is for the people, who disagree with your position, to attempt to make you look like a fool who doesn’t know what they are talking about,” Thomas said when giving his advice to athletes juggling with the idea of speaking out. “That is why you have to be ready to defend your position and articulate it.”

Etan Thomas with Tiffany Crutcher and Terrance Crutcher Jr. at the Terrance Crutcher Foundation Gala. (photo courtesy of Nyles Bodger)

Despite all the rebuttals, Thomas continues to strive for equality around the world. He’s constantly holding panels throughout the country at churches and universities to inspire everyone to stand up for what they believe in. The former NCAA star is taking his actions even further, as he has now invested beyond the issues in sports. “I wanted to encourage future athletes to continue using their voices, so I can show how effective it is when they do and what it means to the people, who they are speaking up for. That is exactly why I interviewed the family of the victims of police brutality, such as Jahvaris [Trayvon Martin’s brother], Emerald [Eric Garner’s daughter], Tiffany [Terence Crutcher’s sister], and Allysza [Philando Castile’s sister].”

There have been allies along the way for Thomas, yet none have the pleasure of watching him up close like his manager Nyles Bodger. “What stands out to me working with Etan Thomas is how he genuinely believes in justice and has been this way apparently since he was in middle school,” Bodger said. “He just flew back from Tulsa, Oklahoma where he attended a gala for the Terence Crutcher Foundation, and at this Gala you could just hear the passion in his voice during his speech. You could see it on his face that it hurts him to see what has been going on with these police killings.”

“I constantly hear people say, ‘what are athletes doing in their free time, when they are not taking a knee, when the cameras aren’t rolling or when the press isn’t there,’ and Etan Thomas is a prime example of an athlete who people can point to and show exactly what he has been doing,” Bodger said.

Athletes constantly amaze people with their production on the field, yet they have the power to do so much more if they use their voice. Etan Thomas will be remembered as more than just a basketball player, he’ll go down as an inspirational leader that made his mark far beyond the lengths of an NBA court.