Robert Gehrke: Utah needs Donovan Mitchell’s voice on racial violence more than 50 points in a game

(Ashley Landis | AP) Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell (45) drives as Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray (27) looks on during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Donovan Mitchell is stringing together what could be the greatest playoff series performance in Utah Jazz history if his team advances to the second round.

But in the midst of it all, he drew intense hatred from some so-called Jazz fans for speaking out, as he has for several months now, about racial injustice and police violence. It hasn’t stopped him.

After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot an unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back seven times after he tried to climb into his car despite their orders to stop, Mitchell resorted to all caps.


He has spoken out repeatedly about police mistakenly shooting Breonna Taylor while executing a search warrant in Louisville, Ky., where Mitchell attended college, calling for the arrest of her killers. The back of his jersey reads: “Say Her Name.”

Some, as I mentioned, have reacted with vitriol, accusing him of being entitled, of being delusional and, in essence, saying that he should shut up and dribble. Some have vowed to boycott the NBA over the league’s activism.

They couldn’t possibly be more wrong and misguided.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

In Mitchell, the Jazz have an electrifying talent who isn’t content to be boxed in as a basketball player. He is composed, thoughtful and fearless, part of a growing group of young superstars willing to use the platform the game has given them to speak the hard truths that we, especially in Utah, need to hear.

Their activism, in many ways, continues the important role sports have played in American society.

“Justifiably and admirably so, sport has been seen as a vanguard of social change,” said David Lunt, a professor of history at Southern Utah University who studies the role of sports in culture.

Think of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, Bill Russell being a proud spokesman on racial matters while racking up championships for the Boston Celtics, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics.

“Athletes have an outside role in society where their position matters,” Lunt said.

None played a larger role, Lunt said, than Muhammad Ali, who was banned from boxing, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to prison (a sentence later reversed) for refusing to “drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

“The real enemy of my people is here,” Ali said.

“Ali, that guy made some real sacrifices for the cause,” Lunt said. “That is sort of the torch-bearer and now it’s been passed, so to speak, to a new generation.”

Since University of Utah guard Wat Misaka became the first non-white player in the NBA in 1947, the league has been transformed. Today three-quarters or more of the pros are Black.

From Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on up to today’s best known star in all of sports, LeBron James, there is a history of speaking out for racial justice.

James wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt during warmups in 2014, after police killed Eric Garner, and revived the image after George Floyd was killed by police.

It’s a refreshing contrast with the days when Michael Jordan refused to denounce a racist U.S. Senate candidate in his home state of North Carolina, reportedly saying “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” In the past year, Jordan, to his credit, has been more outspoken. He has donated $100 million over 10 years to groups fighting racism.

But Mitchell’s activism is new for Utah sports fans. We are used to superstars like Karl Malone, who when he talked politics, spoke a language conservative Utahns understood — guns and hunting — or John Stockton, who didn’t say much of anything remotely controversial.

Mitchell is obviously cut from a different cloth, and it’s important and refreshing that the team and the front office have his back, because the team’s image in the league isn’t necessarily sterling.

Back in 1993, Bulls guard Craig Hodges called Salt Lake City the “last bastion of white supremacy. “Last year, after Russell Westbrook got in an argument with a fan who was hurling racist insults (the second time, Westbrook said, such epithets had been shouted at him in Utah), the franchise made clear the conduct would not be tolerated, and Mitchell defended Westbrook.

We can’t just cheer Mitchell on the court, we need to support him as a human being and hopefully take to heart what he — and other Black people are — saying. Utah needs Mitchell’s voice now, more than ever, even more than we need him to drop 50 points in a game.