By Tacuma Roeback
Town halls, panel discussions and forums on social issues are about as common as team meetings at a startup.
They invoke good will and engender positive vibes, but the initial enthusiasm peters out over time and little occurs as a result. So my cynicism meter was set on high when ESPN’s “An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence” took place last week at a Southside Chicago YMCA.
“After these town hall meetings, everybody goes back to the comforts of their home and the children are still in the street and they’re still dying,” said Dawn Valenti, a crisis responder for Chicago Citizens for Change and a featured panelist at the event.
For this writer, events like these tend to evoke conflicted feelings.
A familiar sensation resonates within whenever Chicago is spotlighted for its ills; it lingers somewhere between shame and defensiveness. It seems indistinct and diffuse yet tangible and cold. This town hall discussion, which would later be broadcast to millions, would paint Chicago, my adopted home, as America’s epicenter of murder and mayhem, where police brutality and black-on-black crime continue unabated.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump has been wanton and relentless about highlighting Chicago’s ills, if only to denigrate current President Barack Obama, who grew his political legacy within this city’s confines.
When it comes to spotlighting violence in Chicago, there are a cacophony of disingenuous voices out there.
So I figured this event would do little to move the needle.
However, I was impressed by the sheer variety of panelists involved, all of whom were invited to share anecdotes about violence, speak to athletes’ role in society and propose helpful solutions to remedy the issue. Hall of Fame NBA player Isiah Thomas participated, as did current NBA players Jabari Parker and Rajon Rondo. Craig Robinson, brother of First Lady Michelle Obama and a former college basketball coach and current ESPN analyst, was present.
Some of the city’s most visible anti-violence voices, like longtime pastor and social activist Father Michael Pfleger, were there. New wave activists like Xavier Ramey of the #LetUsBreathe Collective were there as well. Corporate representatives from Gatorade sat alongside staffers from the Mikva Challenge and other youth empowerment organizations.
The event was hosted by notable ESPN personality Jemele Hill and featured Medill Professor of Practice Michael Wilbon and Jolinda Wade, pastor and mother of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade.
Sobering tales of violence and transformation were shared, most notably by ESPN personality Marcellus Wiley, a Columbia University-educated NFL player from Compton, Calif., who once carried a gun during his first two years as a professional football player.
Wiley talked about an encounter that almost shattered his life. It occurred at a stoplight when a man was walking toward his vehicle.
Wiley said he put his gun on the seat, thinking that the man was intending to cause him harm. The man appeared at his passenger side window.
“I roll down the window and I said, ‘Wassup, man?’ ” Wiley said. “He said, ‘Can you help me? Where’s Holmes Street?’”
Wiley’s depiction of that encounter drew thunderous applause. The incident fueled his decision to stop carrying a gun. More importantly, it was a well told story of how environments can shape behavior.
Andre Hamlin, the bodyguard for NBA player Derrick Rose, also shared a stirring account of his upbringing, lamenting the lack of positive black role models in his neighborhood. Despite being raised by two working parents, Hamlin was riveted by what was occurring on his block.
“What I saw on the corner was somebody that was 16 with a nice chain,” he said.
He talked about the models of extraordinary success he saw and how they did not resemble him.
“And what I saw at home, other than Prince, Michael Jackson and Walter Payton, were white people that were successful. I told myself I can’t be like the white people, so I have to be like someone who looks like me.”
He shared that he decided to join a gang, but after being shot as a high school student, Hamlin sought to turn his life around.
Beyond the powerful stories, a positive site at the event were the dozens of young people present, all there to see a glimpse of and hear from the panelists ESPN assembled.
“An Undefeated Conversation” certainly felt like the start to some form of material action. If anything, it showed there are powerful and fully invested parties that want to see Chicago change.
What’s more, the conversation around athlete responsibility and social awareness has been bolstered by two recent incidents.
The first incident came just one day later with the tragic news that Nykea Aldridge, Dwyane Wade’s cousin, was gunned down while pushing a baby stroller in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Aldridge was the unintended target who allegedly got caught in a crossfire. Two suspects have been detained.
The other story is NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem during the NFL preseason on the grounds of America’s seeming mistreatment of black people and other people of color.
Both incidents are fueling furious debates over racism, black-on-black crime, gun control and police brutality. One unintended development is they have amplified awareness of those issues, which were also discussion points at the ESPN event. Both incidents have continued the momentum from last week’s conversation, forcing various segments of this country to confront these issues.
Whether apathy sets in or not, these issues will likely rage on.
Revolution or not, intended or unintended outcomes will continue to be televised.
Tacuma Roeback is a writer, editor and armchair quarterback from Brooklyn, New York. He has published articles in the Tennessean, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Slant, okayplayer.com and the Times Herald-Record, among other publications. He currently is a student in Medill’s graduate journalism program.