When Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett released a letter to media detailing his horrific run-in with the Las Vegas Municipal Police Department, it set off a mixed bag of reactions. The NFL surprisingly stood with Bennett, despite their wishy-washy stance on Colin Kaepernick, who has protested the exact behavior that Bennett claims he was a victim of (go figure). Per usual, LVMPD responded to the NFL’s letter with one of their own, claiming that Bennett’s accusations were “obviously false,” while also calling for the NFL to investigate the 2x Pro Bowl player. The NFL declined.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident. When they are off the field, athletes are treated the same as everyday citizens in many instances—especially black athletes.
James Blake (Retired Pro Tennis Player)
Incident: In 2015, a plainclothes NYPD officer mistook Blake for a credit card scammer, so of course the officer identified himself and questioned the tennis star. WRONG! Officer James Frascatore violently slammed Blake into a door at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan before tackling and cuffing him. Blake was released 10 minutes later, but the damage was done.
Outcome: Blake agreed not to sue the city. Frascatore is said to have reached a deal that spared him from a public disciplinary trial over accusations he used excessive force in the 2015 incident. We may never know what the offending officer’s punishment was, because his disciplinary records are shielded from public release by a state civil rights statute protecting personnel records.
Thabo Sefolosha (NBA Player)
Incident: In April 2015, then Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha was injured by several NYPD officers in an incident outside of a Manhattan nightclub. Not only did the officers in question cause injuries that included a broken fibula and torn ligaments, they also offered to drop three charges of resisting arrest, if the Swiss born player admitted his guilt. He declined and it took the jury less than an hour to find him not guilty of all charges during his trial.
It is amazing that the Atlanta Falcons and the NBA didn’t push harder for justice in this case, especially considering that Sefolosha’s injury directly impacted his team’s chances in the playoffs.
Outcome: The NYPD paid Sefolosha $4 million in a settlement deal. The NBA player promised to donate a “substantial” portion of the money to Atlanta based Gideon’s Promise. The non-profit organization helps support and train public defenders across the country.
Mike Scott (NBA Player)
Incident: Trouble seemed to follow current Washington Wizards forward Mike Scott when he lived in Atlanta. Coming off of the best season of his career, Scott and his brother were pulled over in Banks County, GA in 2015. The stop resulted in an unnamed officer finding marijuana and MDMA in their rented SUV. Scott was eventually traded to the Suns, who waived him. Coming off of a knee injury and an ugly arrest, no team would touch him.
Outcome: Turns out that the Banks County Sherriff’s department had no reason to stop Scott’s SUV in the first place. In a shocking turn, Judge Currie Mingledorff signed a ruling that suppressed the evidence because the deputies “did not enforce the law in a racially neutral manner.” Yep, a good ol’ example of racial profiling.
Brandon Backe (Former MLB Pitcher)
Incident: Apparently it Is not just the black players who get targeted by rogue police, former Houston Astros pitcher Brandon Backe claimed that Galveston, TX police officers brutalized him to the extent that it ended his promising career. In the 2008 incident, Backe and 11 other patrons claimed that they were beaten brutally by 30 Galveston police officers who were responding to a under aged drinking call at a wedding party.
Outcome: The federal jury could not reach a verdict on Backe’s brutality claim, but they did find that four Galveston, Texas police officers used excessive force to break up the party. They also awarded almost $50,000 in damages in the lawsuit against those four officers. In 2014, Backe and his attorneys said that they would seek a retrial on the unresolved claims.
Tom Johnson (NFL Player)
Incident: Tom Johnson didn’t start playing football until he had a growth spurt during his sophomore year in high school. The Mississippi native played at every pro level of football conceivable before finally latching on to an NFL roster with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014. In that same year, Johnson was pepper-sprayed and tasered outside of a local restaurant. Minneapolis police accused Johnson of trespassing, disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer after police said he ignored commands to leave a downtown restaurant. He was acquitted of all charges.
Outcome: Johnson filed a lawsuit against the officers last year. The trial date has been set for March 1, 2018.
Don’t be confused, the issue of police misconduct is nothing new. Over 100 years ago, police arrested boxer Jack Johnson on trumped up charges that sent him to federal prison for nearly a year. Clearly not a whole lot has changed. The combination of the Black Lives Matter movement, incidents being captured via smartphones and body cams (when they are actually turned on), a 24/7 news cycle and social media activism, has just increased the public’s consciousness.
Although they have been apprehensive to do so in the past, if these incidents keep happening, professional sports leadership will be forced to take some kind of stance or deal with a quick and damaging public backlash.