Interview with Washington Wizard center, Etan Thomas
There are very few professional athletes today that use their personal resources to become agents of change. Since being selected with the 12th pick by Dallas (subsequently traded to Washington) out of Syracuse University in the 2000 draft, Etan has used his conscious and tireless voice to uplift the underclass, inspire those who search for positive understanding, and address controversial issues such as the pessimistic plight of inner-city schools, the death penalty, and abortion–among others. He’s written a book of poems, More Than An Athlete and has another forth coming tentatively titled Freedom to Speak. He’s written columns for SLAMonline and The Huffington Post, spoken on panels and participated in demonstrations; using his public personna to help establish a mass voice which will force those in power to judge their collective work accordingly. Those of you who are enlightened by an athlete unafraid to challenge the status quo will find purpose–past, present and future–in Etan’s words and social interaction. I personally choose to follow athletes of Etan’s ilk because he takes me back to a different time–1968–when athletes were not at all worried about offending anyone, but more focused on helping everyone.
Etan recently took some time out of his busy off-season schedule to give TSF a few words on what his socially aware consciousness is all about.
MT: What do you think the media’s role should be in contrast to what it actually is? This speaks to the present media climate and how it affects the fan’s perception of athletes.
ET: During a panel discussion at Morehouse after the season, I shared the stage with many columnists, and I addressed this very question. I knew the answer, but I wanted to see what excuse they were going to give. The fact is that negativity sells. Nobody wants to read about an athlete making positive contributions to our community and society as a whole. That doesn’t make the top of sports center. When an athlete makes a charitable donation, responds in a crises i.e. Katrina, 911, the catastrophe of inner city schools etc., that is not shown. But let an athlete get arrested, or better yet, accused of something that there has been no conclusive evidence toward, that will be at the top of every sports news outlet across the country. That is the unfortunate reality of the world of sports. The answer that was given by Stephen A. Smith was and I quote, “The actions of a few outweigh the many”. Unfortunately, this is just the way it is. When an athlete does something positive, it is not big news, when we do something negative, it is.
The problem with this is that it skews public perception of athletes as a whole because society and “the mainstream” are only given one side. I think that it is important to show both sides of the equation. If it weren’t for NBA Cares, even if it is being done for business reasons, we would hardly ever be cast in a positive light. People tend to believe everything that they read. If you constantly bombard them with negative images of a certain group, they will begin to believe that this is an honest representation of the entire group as a whole. Especially, if they are not being shown anything different. It’s not that I am blaming the media for everything, which is often a response by many of the journalists when confronted with this issue, but I think they have a responsibility especially the few black journalists that we do have, to not only point out the negative, but shine some light on the positive as well.
MT: That being said, why are NBA fights more heavily scrutinized than fights in other sports?
ET: It’s interesting because I watch a lot of sports. I see bench clearing brawls in baseball. I’ve seen them drop the bat, rush the pitcher, and the entire team spill onto the field throwing blows, but its never blown up in the media the way it is when basketball players get into a fight. In hockey they were actually complaining that there wasn’t as many fights as there used to be. But when something happens in basketball, the entire culture of the NBA is demonized. Then, somehow, they bring hip hop into the discussion, which always seems to happen for some reason, and there is this big problem. And something needs to be done. We become labeled as thugs. That is something that really bothers me, but it is an unfortunate reality that is our present day society.
MT: What’s your impression of Hip Hop?
ET: I love Hip Hop. It has always spoken to me in high volumes and has had a tremendous influence on my life. I remember listening to Public Enemy and X Clan when I was young. I was captivated by everything that they represented and spoke about. The revolutionary aspect of Public Enemy and the cultural aspect of X Clan was something that I was drawn to. I remember being amazed at the lyrics of Rakim and Nas. The people I mostly listen to now are Talib Kweli, The Roots, Common, Mos Def; I still listen to old Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and De La Soul. That’s what I like to hear. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like the other types of Hip Hop. Even if it doesn’t directly speak to me, I can appreciate Hip Hop in all its forms. I’m not one of these people who say that Hip Hop is dead; I just think it’s in a phase right now. Soon, this will pass, and Hip Hop will be in another phase. That’s the beauty of Hip Hop; it can never die because it is always re-inventing itself.
*Note: KRS-One’s son, Randy Hubbard Parker, was found dead from an apparent suicide July 6–Michael Tillery.
MT: What do you have going on off the court?
ET: I have quite a bit going on off the court.
I just finished speaking at two correctional facilities; DC Prison and Prince George’s Correctional Facility. I am going to speak at the NAACP Youth Conference & Author’s Pavilion in Detroit in July. And like last summer I will be speaking at the Congressional Black Caucus weekend & the National Council of Negro Women’s Black Family Reunion both in September. Also on tap this summer is a few Local HS visits at the beginning of the school term & an evening of dialogue with the Literary Counsel of Price George’s County in September.
I am going on a trip to in July to Kenya with Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Theo Ratliff, and Maurice Evans with a goal to feed a million people. This was spearheaded by former player Kermit Washington.
I’ll be working with the Obama ‘08 Presidential campaign.
My wife and I will be working with a camp with our church, First Baptist of Glen Arden where we talk to young people dealing with issues ranging from being frustrated confused or outright struggling with religion as a whole, to societal and social problems, and anything else you can think of. This one is more of my wife’s event, I’m just helping out. I really have a passion for young people. I just feel that they are dealing with so much and have so much to say and need to get off their chest and many times, their voices are not being heard.
I am currently finishing my second book, featuring my brother Julian. We’re playing with a few titles but I think it’s going to be called “Freedom to Speak”. A collection of essays, poems, short plays, short stories, monologues, and dialogues. I’m also going to have an entire section devoted to answering criticisms I have gotten in the past. (Believe me, there’s been plenty) I’m going to break it up into sections. There’s going to be a political section, a sports section, a section geared toward young people, a spiritual section, a deeper, philosophical, more multilayered section, called seeds of peace (a camp I’ve been going to for the past few years) a section called tales of incarceration (I’ve been doing a lot of work in prisons), culture and societal section, a section dealing with racial issues, a section about family (I am married with a son now so there is a whole other side of me that has opened up, each section will contain various poems, essays, short plays etc. on the particular topic.
I am also doing a CD with my brother with quite a few featured artists. It’s going to be great. I am someone who is always writing, whether it’s on the plane, late at night, after I workout, whenever I get a free minute. There is so much to write about, sometimes you just can’t stop.
MT: It’s rare to see or hear a professional athlete’s opinion of the War in Iraq. How do you personally feel?
ET: We are past the point of blame. Although it does anger me that the Bush administration is still saying things like “stay the course”, and we”ll stand down when the Iraqis stand up”, and won’t take responsibility that they led us into this mess under a false accusation of weapons of mass destruction. It still angers me that this entire debacle had absolutely no connection to 911, did absolutely nothing to make us safer here in the U.S., and has cost us the lives of well over 3000 of our soldiers. In fact, I hold the Bush administration personally responsible for every mother who will never see their son or daughter again. The area is more dangerous now than when we entered it. We destroyed a regime hated by our direct enemies and created thousands of new recruits for them. This war has done far more harm than good and it amazes me when I hear political pundits, mostly on Fox News, continue to defend it. But now we need to figure out the right course of action. The Republicans keep using the phrase “cut and run”, but sometimes you have to know when to say when.
To quote Bill Clinton: “When practical people find themselves in a hole, they stop digging. When ideological people find themselves in a hole, they ask for a bigger shovel.” That’s exactly what this administration is doing, asking for a bigger shovel to dig the American people into.
MT: Do you have political aspirations? If not, what do you see yourself portraying when the beard is grey?
ET: It’s funny, my wife always calls me a nerd but I have a strong interest in politics. I don’t know if I would want to run for congress or anything, but at the same time, I wouldn’t rule it out. There are just a lot of things that I see that aren’t fair, and that’s what drives my passion for politics. Whether it’s the war, the school system, health care, police brutality, the death penalty, there is just so much in society that isn’t the way that its suppose to be. Not to mention foreign policy, immigration, the environment, abortion, gun control, which are topics that simply cannot be ignored. I could definitely see myself going back to school and getting my masters and becoming a professor at a HBCU. But who knows.
MT: Dave Zirin is definitely a friend of ours at TSF. He’s a very talented writer and does as much as he can for other people. I know there’s an association there between the two of you. How did that come about?
ET: Dave Zirin is my guy. Back when I first wanted to come out publicly against the war in Iraq, I surprisingly was having a lot of trouble finding a media outlet who would allow me to use them as a vehicle. I went to the Washington post, the Washington Times, New York Times, every publication I could think of, and nobody would touch the story. Dave Zirin was working for the Prince George’s Post at the time, and he was more than happy to publish my article. The piece was called, “I Am Totally Against This War”. This was back in 2004 when it wasn’t too popular of an opinion to be against the war in Iraq. Now, most people, even Republicans, are speaking against this war, but not back then. I remember reading how they treated the Dixie Chicks. I actually bought their album in support of them. I don’t really listen to their music much, but I respect their stance, especially in the face of the adversary they faced.
MT: Barack or Hilary?
ET: Not to talk bad about Hilary, but I really like what I am seeing from Senator Obama so far. I was just reading about his recent pledge to provide proper assistance for active duty soldiers. He acknowledged that currently we are falling far short in addressing the mental care needs of our heroes and that is inexcusable. I read about his plan for universal health care by eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthy which I am definitely in agreement with especially after reading about Michael Moore’s Sicko. Health Care should not be a problem as wealthy and powerful as this country is. Also, he was against the war from the beginning. He didn’t vote one way, and later change his position. Also, earlier this summer, Obama called for reforming the student loan program by eliminating the costly subsidies to private lenders in favor of mandating that all federal student loans be provided through the direct loan program. Meaning that the student loan program could no longer be abused. The private banks are the ones who profit off of student loans right now, and this can make college a little more affordable. I saw the way he handled the whole situation with Rush Limbaugh. He didn’t stoop to his level, or take the bait. He just rose above his ignorance, and maintained his decorum. I also read where while he welcomed Bush’s decision to finally impose tightened sanctions on the Sudanese government, he still criticized it for not only being absent of the much needed sanctions against the oil industry which is needed to stop the killings and displacement of the innocent civilians of Darfur. But also they need the deployment of a strong international force led by the UN with some type of enforcement mandate to protect the civilians. If you’re going to do something, you need to do it right. I know its early, but Barack Obama is definitely heading in the right direction, and the polls are a reflection of that.
MT: Why is it important for you to reach the kids in an age where people just don’t give a damn?
ET: It’s important to me because I see their potential. I see what they are capable of, and it’s almost as if nobody is telling them. I also get frustrated by the lack of resources available to them. It’s a passion of mine to speak to young people because so many are talking about them, but not talking to them. I spent this week visiting two correctional facilities, one Prince George’s Correctional facility, and a DC jail. I spoke with young men who will get a second chance but I stressed to them that it’s up to them. I told them that society almost wants them to mess up so that they can fill the new prisons they build. I talked about how they owe it to themselves not to become what everyone expects them to become. That they can turn their lives around but the choice is theirs. I shared personal experiences with them, recited some poetry that spoke to them. For instance, a poem I have called wasted talent about a young man I grew up admiring how he played basketball, but who never made it because of the choices he made in life. It’s interesting because the guards at the facility told me that I probably challenged them harder than they’ve ever been challenged before. I don’t know about all that, but I just brought a lot of things to their attention. Like, why do they think when you have money, you get the dream team, but they get the public defenders who stress to them to cop a plea, and are usually some unqualified cat, without the access, time, or commitment to the proper resources. Or that prisons are privatized now and they make money off of them every time they mess up. That it actually benefits them, and that’s why they would rather lock them up than rehabilitate them. It’s a message of knowing that you are not going to get a fair chance, the system is set up for you to lose, so why would you fall into their traps. That you are cheating yourselves. Also, that anybody can make a mistake, but when you get out, what will you have learned from your mistake. Are you going to do what they expect you to do anyway which is go back to the same criminal activity that got you in there in the first place, and end up back in prison. Or are you going to change your lives? Don’t let anybody, any statistic tell you that you can’t do it, because the choice is up to you.
MT: What do kids need to know to help inspire them to greater heights?
ET: It’s interesting because my message shifts depending who I am speaking to. When I go to schools I point out the difference between the schools in the suburbs, and the schools in the inner city, and how it is set up for us to fail. The inner city schools are over crowded, teachers are underpaid and frustrated, old out of date books, brand new metal detectors, but old books. And the schools in the suburbs have new computers, 14 kids to a class, with a teacher’s aid, air conditioner, new books. How we are put at a disadvantage from the beginning. Then they issue their standardized tests comparing the inner city to the suburbs as if the two were getting the same education, and when the test scores aren’t the same, Bush uses that as the reason why we don’t need some form of affirmative action in schools. If the school system was equal institutions of higher learning wouldn’t need methods of special consideration, but they aren’t. If I’m talking to a group of republicans, I am saying that this is the situation that you created by taking money out of inner city schools, cutting funding for programs, the no child shall be left behind farce etc. But when I am speaking to young people it’s a message of, this is what’s set up for you. The entire system is set for you to fail so you have to work twice as hard to be successful. I am a firm believer in just because someone digs a hole for you, doesn’t mean that you have to fall in that whole. You always have a choice.
MT: Are you happy?
ET: I can say all and all, I’m blessed.