Russell Westbrook became the latest sports star to lend a bit of his luster to a worthy cause — in this case, voicing support for striking teachers in Oklahoma who on Monday mark their second week out of the classroom.
Teachers in Oklahoma stopped working last Monday to press their demands for higher pay and better working conditions. Asked on Saturday whether he backs Oklahoma educators in their demands for higher pay and better working conditions, Westbrook declared that he is “all in.”
Russell Westbrook on the teacher walkout in Oklahoma: “I’m definitely all in for that.” pic.twitter.com/vJOgk7zEtu
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) April 7, 2018
“Education is very, very important to me and the teachers are standing up for something I obviously believe in — that’s helping the kids get a better education,” Westbrook said in an interview with NBA reporter Royce Young of ESPN.
“Obviously them getting paid more, more funding for the schools is very, very important. So I’m definitely all in for that. I believe education is key to a lot of different things that’s going on in society,” he said during interview on the court in Houston, where his Oklahoma City Thunders were playing the Rockets.
It’s not entirely surprising that Westbrook would feel that way, given his longstanding support for education causes and his own involvement in the NBA players’ union.
Still, it’s never a certainty that superstar athletes will use their celebrity to back causes outside of sport.
Michael Jordan gained instant and lasting notoriety when he was reported to have said in 1990 that “Republicans buy sneakers too” when asked whether he supported black Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Harvey Gantt over racist, arch-conservative incumbent Republican Sen. Jesse Helms.
Gantt ultimately lost that bid to represent North Carolina in the Senate. Recalling Jordan’s comments years later, legendary basketball center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in an NPR interview that Jordan chose “commerce over conscience.”
More than a quarter-century later, in a July 2016 essay in ESPN’s The Undefeated, Jordan wrote about being “deeply troubled” by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement” but also “angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers” — which some critics felt gave short shrift to the effects of an epidemic of police shooting in the Black community.
By contrast, Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests during the national anthem did little to endear him to NFL owners, but they earned the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback enduring respect and adulation from millions of Americans moved by his efforts to call attention to police brutality and systemic racism.
By that yardstick, Westbrook’s brief remarks in support of teachers Oklahoma’s overworked, underpaid educators are a far less grand statement, but they will likely be viewed as welcome all the same.
The Oklahoma strike is part of a series of labor actions by educators and school administrators throughout the country. In recent weeks, West Virginia teachers reached a deal with lawmakers for a 5 percent pay increase, after nine days of strikes. Teachers in Kentucky and Arizona are also currently protesting for increased education funding.
Labor organizers say it is not uncommon for Oklahoma teachers to work a second or third job just to make ends meet. They are the lowest paid in the country, according to 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Data gathered by the National Education Association, which only considers public school teachers, shows Oklahoma teachers only made slightly more than Mississippi and South Dakota teachers, with an average salary of $45,245.