In September, Thabo Sefolosha was faced with an impossibly difficult choice. An altercation with police outside of a Manhattan night club back in April had left the Atlanta Hawks guard with a broken fibula and separated ligaments, an injury that ended his season just as his team was headed to the NBA playoffs. To make matters worse, he was charged with three misdemeanors for his own role in an incident that was particularly resonant in a year dominated by news of police brutality against people of color.
Despite Sefolosha’s celebrity status, his situation is not exceptional. “Our players are in the world; they’re just not immune from it,” Michele Roberts, head of the National Basketball Players Association, told ThinkProgress. “No one was shocked that that happened to Thabo but everybody was angry that it happened because it keeps happening.”
Prosecutors offered Sefolosha what many saw as a very lenient plea deal: One day of community service and all charges dismissed after six months. “But to accept the deal felt like admitting guilt,” Sefolosha said, recounting the incident for the first time in GQ. Even with the risk of jail time looming, he rejected the deal and elected instead to go to trial.
It took the jury less than an hour of deliberating to find him not guilty on all three counts. With his defense bolstered by the existence of video evidence, he’d taken on the city and the officers who had acted so violently toward him and won.
But Sefolosha’s stand didn’t end there. This week, he announced that he intends to file a civil lawsuit against the city of New York, the NYPD, and the police officers involved.
Why not drop it after the acquittal? “Because there’s a lot of unknown about how this will affect me two years from now, five years from now, ten years from now. And also because I think it’s the right approach to put lights in a situation like this and to be able to fight back in the legal way and in a way that can empower hopefully more people,” Sefolosha told ESPN.
Sefolosha’s attorney, Alex Spiro, declined to comment extensively on the legal saga but praised his client’s consistently principled stand. Roberts agreed. “Faced with that prospect, how many of us would take the less difficult road? I don’t know that I would have made the same decision,” she said.
Roberts was present at Sefolosha’s trial. She watched the officers’ “incredible” testimony and said the civil remedy is a clear avenue for holding them accountable — hopefully serving a broader role in the effort to curb instances of police brutality.
“What has been a great concern of mine is my understanding that these officers were not even placed on administrative leave,” she said. “It’s been business as usual since this whole thing happened.”
If the case were to go to trial, that process would provide the opportunity to access the officers’ disciplinary records and department trainings, Angel Harris, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, explained. “That would be a great avenue to expose the NYPD,” she said. “To bring this to the forefront and have a conversation about police brutality and police interaction with the community.”
Most defendants in Sefolosha’s position, no matter how certain they are of their innocence, do not have the luxury of rejecting a plea deal, nor do they have the means or support to pursue a civil lawsuit. But his decision to do so could have a tangible effect for the communities of color who are disproportionately affected by police brutality.
“I would hope one of the things that could come out of this is for people to be aware that this could happen to anyone,” Harris said. “If police misconduct goes unchecked, it will continue to deteriorate the relationship between the community and the police.”
Even among active NBA players, Sefolosha isn’t alone.
Last week, Milwaukee Bucks center John Henson took to social media to describe an incident of racial profiling he experienced at a local jewelry store. When Henson approached the store, intending to buy a new watch, the employees locked the door and called 911. In an Instagram post, Henson called the incident “one of the the most degrading and racially prejudice [sic] things I’ve ever experienced in life.”
The humiliation that Henson suffered at the jewelry store is a routine occurrence for people of color, Roberts explained, but the opportunity to draw more attention to that prevalence shouldn’t be passed up. “As an African American I have certainly experienced on any number of occasions going into a store and knowing that I’m being watched more closely because I’m black,” she said. “If it does happen to someone of some notoriety, that person has a responsibility, in my view, to shout it to the world that this happened to me because I’m of color.”
Roberts knows she can’t shield the players — “my guys” as she calls them — from the realities of the society in which they live. But she says she tries nonetheless. “My message to them is this: I know I don’t need to remind you but let me remind you anyways, when you walk the streets, you’re walking the streets just like anybody else and you have to be careful.”
As for Sefolosha, he seems intent on focusing on what he does best. “Right now I want to concentrate on the season,” he told GQ. “I think I can help bring some light on the issue, but I don’t think it’s on me to be the face of a movement. Playing basketball is what I love to do.”