In 1849, a Harvard graduate, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” On Friday night, a day after virtually graduating from the same prestigious university, former Ivy League men’s basketball Player of the Year Seth Towns took to the streets of his hometown in an act of civil disobedience. The Ohio State graduate transfer was one of thousands nationwide over the weekend to protest the centuries of systemic racism that regularly and routinely leads to unjust violence against Black men and women in this country, all too often resulting in senseless death.
Following the murder on Monday of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, by the reprehensible actions of a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, protests and demonstrations have popped up in cities large and small across the country. Unfortunately, many of those peaceful protests have been hijacked by individuals and groups with ulterior motives, resulting in unnecessary violence and destruction. And in too many circumstances members of police forces have failed to live up to the standards that they are sworn to uphold.
However, on Friday night, Towns was one of dozens who were detained by Columbus police following their peaceful demonstrations. Towns was released with no charges filed.
On Saturday, Towns took to social media to explain his actions from the night before, and instantly proved that he was a leader and a man worthy of both the Scarlet and Gray of his current school and the Crimson of his alma mater.
Towns said, “In a span of just 24 hours, I walked across a Harvard virtual graduation stage into the back of police van alongside other peaceful protestors—both of which I am equally proud of.”
And Buckeye fans, you should be proud of him too. The horrific images that we have seen on screens and newspapers this week are fraught with countless opinions colored by our individual lived experiences, but there should be no confusion that Towns and anyone who peacefully protests for a righteous cause should be celebrated. The practice of civil disobedience is older than the United States itself, and our nation would not exist without it.
Both Towns’ current head coach — OSU’s Chris Holtmann — and his former head coach — Harvard’s Tommy Amaker — have already released statements supporting not only Towns as a man and a leader, but celebrating him for the character and strength that he displayed on Friday night.
I was already excited to watch Towns join the Buckeyes whenever the basketball season got underway, but now, even before the ball is in the air, he has quickly risen to become one of my favorite players on the team (with Andre Wesson gone, that spot is now vacant and accepting applications). But, if you are a member of the #ShutUpAndDribble crowd, might I humbly suggest that you take this moment in history to reevaluate your position.
Over at cleveland.com, my long-time favorite Ohio State beat writer Doug Lesmerises wrote about the importance of recognizing that athletes (specially student-athletes) are not just here to provide us entertainment and something to distract us on game days. They are men and women who have very specific perspectives formed by a lifetime of experiences that can help us understand the world in ways that going about our lives otherwise would allow. And — as Lesmerises notes — the closest connection that many White Americans have to African Americans is via the athletes that they root for.
I understand that so many amongst us these days view others solely through the service that they perform for us. That’s why many people feel comfortable berating a cashier because their store’s return policy won’t allow them to exchange a sweater that they wore for a month and a half; or why people feel completely comfortable stiffing a server simply because they didn’t refill their Diet Coke for the fifth time fast enough. We have become so focused on the transactional aspects of our relationships that we forget about the humanity of the individual on the other side, and that extends to the athletes that we follow.
We see it in the reactions that “fans” have online when a player misses a shot or drops a pass. We see it in the burning of jerseys when a player decides to sign with another franchise. All too often, we dehumanize as many people as we can, because it allows us to not be burdened by their situations, by their fears, and by the oppression that they experience. This is a way — no matter who we are — of creating our own little bubble of privilege, absolving us of having to acknowledge the emotions of anyone other than ourselves and those that we cautiously and selectively allow inside our bubbles.
But that bubble-wrapped way of life betrays what it means to be an American. This country was built upon the opportunity for peoples of disparate backgrounds to come together both physically and intellectually to enlighten each other and to work together for a greater purpose. We don’t do that anymore. We have been trained to self-isolate and accept only the information that we already hear coming from inside our bubbles. But, no matter how right we think our side is, ignoring the voices and insight of others is always bad.
So, as you see protests taking place across the country, and you see athletes expressing themselves — either on social media, or by marching like Towns did — I truly hope that you will take this opportunity to listen to the words that they say. Just because an athlete wears the jersey of our favorite team, doesn’t mean that what they do on the field or court is the only — or even the most important — thing that they have to offer us.