The Thabo Sefolosha Case Part II: Basketball, Race Relations, (A Lack Of) Sports Media Coverage


Racial profiling by police is a problem in the United States; there’s no two ways about it.

Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer, who claimed not to use excessive force. Twelve year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by a police officer responding to a call about a black man pointing a ‘probably fake’ gun in a public park; the subsequent police account was wrought with inconsistencies when compared to a surveillance video of the incident. Freddie Gray fell into a coma and later died of spinal cord injuries suffered while being transported in a police van, arrested for possession of an illegal knife.

There are countless other cases like this of police overstepping their bounds, not all of them are fatal. Not all of them have video evidence, in which case the word of the police officer is oftentimes taken as truth. Not all of them become national media stories; even the ones that are don’t always seem to be met with justice.

This brings us to the Thabo Sefolosha case. As I’ve previously written, the police overstepped their bounds, breaking the leg of the NBA guard while arresting him for resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and obstructing government administration.

The physical injury to Sefolosha wasn’t the only case of wrongdoing here; the judge sanctioned the prosecution for withholding evidence, specifically ‘two seemingly generic internal NYPD documents that strongly suggested the testifying officers had made inconsistent statements throughout the investigation of Thabo and Pero [Antic, Thabo’s teammate who was also at the scene], and during Thabo’s trial itself.‘.

Andrew Chi, a Manhattan based law graduate who sat in on parts of the trial assured me when I reached out to him:

Don’t take my word for it, the judge in Thabo’s case was even convinced of that which is why he sanctioned the prosecution.

The withheld evidence probably won’t see the light of day now that the trial’s been finished; it leaves one to wonder how much evidence is withheld for less publicized trials, without video evidence. Even despite the video evidence on this trial, a testifying officer also claimed that Sefolosha stated that the injury to his leg was sustained prior to the incident with police, despite the fact that Sefolosha played in a basketball game earlier that day. Again, without contrary evidence, the word of a police officer is generally trusted.

It’s situations like these that cause members of the public to call for action, whether it be police reform or putting one’s faith in the judicial system. The media also plays a key role, publicizing these incidents for the a larger population to make themselves aware of and possibly act themselves.

However, according to ESPN’s Bomani Jones, ‘sports media has basically ignored Sefolosha’s trial’. Regular media such as the New York Times is doing their due diligence and reporting on it, but the average American sports fan who turns on SportsCenter at 6pm instead of the news isn’t hearing much about this. This is something that as members of the public we should be unwilling to accept. As Andrew Chi put it:

Thabo is an NBA player and the coverage of his issue was a travesty – imagine the thousands of other people out there getting trampled by our imperfect criminal justice system who aren’t even getting the light of day.

In fact, in my own research on this case, I found that some of the most thorough accounts of the investigation came from Reddit’s r/NBA subreddit, where knowledgeable ordinary citizens chose to use their time to inform the public about this case. It’s not as if there was a lack of available media either, this trial took place in New York City. This should be national news, but the sports media has largely turned a blind eye.

This isn’t because it’s more of a legal story than a sports story, American sports media spent weeks covering ‘Deflategate’ on a daily basis. Neither is it unwilling to tackle race-related issues; once tapes of former L.A. Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racially infused tirades as it pertained to his mistress were released there was an enormous public outcry for him to be punished (and by punished, given a lifetime ban from the NBA and forced to sell his team, pocketing over $2,000,000 in the process). There was absolutely no debate when it came to that incident.

Therein lies the problem; it’s easy for media to ‘take a stand’ when it comes to race relations when there’s not much of a stand to take and it’s an open and shut case. In the case of Donald Sterling, it’s very difficult to defend a man who’s on record for saying that he didn’t want a girl he was involved with to bring black people to his games. Moreover, the Donald Sterling issue was essentially put to bed by his lifetime ban from the NBA; the media both can and did take partial credit for that.

There’s no real way to pat oneself on the back by covering Sefolosha’s case. After all, the Thabo Sefolosha case is just one example of how America’s police have the ability to abuse their power, often without facing real consequence unless public pressure is applied.

His trial may be over, but there are undoubtedly similar ones going on in cities throughout the United States. It’s not a comfortable subject to talk about. There’s no narrative of “this was a problem, we stepped in, now it’s not a problem anymore” at play here. The facts of the case are out there, and the public isn’t informed enough on it.

Regarding the trial, the case against Sefolosha was a weak one. His acquittal came as no surprise, but it can’t un-break his leg and teleport him back to last year’s playoffs so he can help his team. It’s not going to advance the rehab he’s still going through, or change the fact that he’s currently unsure of whether he’ll recover in time for the beginning of the NBA season.

In the wider context, this trial challenges the idea that sports can be a platform for larger social issues, put a spotlight on real world problems. Sports media dropped the ball when it came to a case that should be extremely socially relevant, but got swept under the rug. In discussing this issue, it’s difficult to toe the line between taking a stance and staying politically correct. It’s an emotional issue, and I’m sure people in the media don’t want to say the wrong thing.

In that spirit, too many members of sports media have said nothing at all on the issue. That’s amounted to silencing the issue among sports media, which is even more of a problem than saying something with the potential to be deemed wrong or politically incorrect.



Daniel Fitzpatrick is a MA Transnational Studies student hailing from Windsor, Connecticut in the United States.

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