Seventeen-year-old football phenom Tyreke Smith made national headlines two weeks ago for wearing a T-shirt that read “I HOPE I DON’T GET KILLED FOR BEING BLACK TODAY” to a football camp hosted at (the) Ohio State University.
The camp was supposed to be a showcase for prized high school recruits such as Smith, a four-star prospect who’s received scholarship offers from some of the most prestigious college football programs in the country, including LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame and Ohio State (among others). But Smith’s T-shirt turned the event into a political football, sparking a conversation about violence committed against young black men.
It was the exact reaction Tyreke and his older brother Malik had hoped for. Disturbed by the shocking number of black men who have been killed the past few years, and inspired by the success of the “I CAN’T BREATHE” shirts memorializing Eric Garner, 19-year-old Malik thought to create a shirt of his own.
Now Malik wants to turn the popularity of the T-shirt into a full-fledged clothing brand called MBK (short for My Brother’s Keeper). Malik isn’t donating MBK proceeds to any charities at the moment, but he does hope to be successful enough to start an MBK-sponsored scholarship program in the near future. (Malik is also a successful student-athlete in his own right. He plays D-I basketball at Bryant University in Rhode Island, where he studies business management.)
I spoke with Malik by phone last Friday about his inspiration for the T-shirt, the tempest that is mixing sports and politics and how Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer commended Tyreke for making such a bold statement.
How’d you get the idea to make this T-shirt?
My grandfather, who’s an ex-Black Panther, and I talk often about what’s going on in black communities — black-on-black crime, police brutality. News report after news report, killing after killing. I started thinking, Am I going to get killed for my skin color? Am I next? I decided to put it on a shirt because it’s a powerful message. You go, Whoa.
But of all the ways to communicate that message, why a T-shirt?
Because it’s on your chest. When people walk by you, they see what’s on your shirt. I thought it’d be the best way to get my message out there. Also, a lot of the time, people don’t speak to strangers if you don’t know them. But I wanted people to think about what I have to go through on a daily basis being black. If it’s on a T-shirt, they don’t have to talk to me to understand what I’m going through.
How did you land on this specific slogan?
It stuck out the most. When I originally said the slogan to my grandfather, he was taken aback. And I immediately said, “I’m going to put that on my shirt.”
You’ll notice I don’t mention police specifically. I’m raising awareness about something black people face, whether it’s black-on-black violence or police violence.
So you’re trying to criticize violence among black Americans as well?
Yes, sir. They’re both issues affecting the black community, and that’s ultimately what I’m trying to do — bring awareness to black issues.
How did Tyreke come to wear it to the football camp?
He’s one of the top recruits here in Ohio. He saw me wearing it, and he asked if he could wear one to the camp. I said, “Yes, absolutely. But at the same time, understand that the cameras are going to be on you, and you need to be able to describe the message in great detail.” Otherwise you’re just wearing it to wear it.
So you knew the shirt was controversial?
Definitely. It was intentional.
Is Tyreke as politically and socially conscious as you?
Were you concerned that the controversy might negatively affect Tyreke’s recruiting prospects?
There might be coaches that feel that way, but none have voiced that to Tyreke. Nor have any rescinded any of his scholarships. In fact, all the coaches have praised him for wearing the shirt and are proud of him for sticking up for what he believes in.
Coaches from USC and Penn State praised him. Urban Meyer walked up to Tyreke and told him it was a cool shirt, and that he respects Tyreke for voicing his opinion.
What about college football fans? Because if Colin Kaepernick has proved anything, it’s that football fans don’t want social issues impeding their enjoyment of the game.
That’s a whole different story. A lot them have been real nasty and derogatory toward my brother and me. But we knew that was going to happen, and he’s handled that very well. They’ll mention us on Twitter and say we’re stupid, dumb and the most ignorant people on Earth. But we feel what we’re doing is right. So we’re going to keep talking about this issue, no matter what people say.
Why are racial politics so upsetting for sports fans?
People don’t want to talk about violence against black people. They try to act like it’s not relevant. They don’t want to believe that that’s what’s going on in America. They feel like America is equal for everybody, no matter what your skin color, and that violence can happen to anybody. But when statistics show otherwise, they get uncomfortable. This has been going on all the way back to slavery.
You live in Ohio. What was your reaction when the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice was not charged for his death?
I wasn’t surprised. Stuff like that happens often. People kill blacks and get off the hook. So it didn’t shock me at all, which is sad.
Has Tyreke wearing the T-shirt affected sales?
A great deal. We’ve sold about 115 T-shirts so far.
Are you planning on making MBK a business?
Yes. We have some new items on the way. We have a T-shirt coming that says “MY BROTHER’S KEEPER” and another that says “MY SISTER’S KEEPER.”
So MBK isn’t going to be only about social consciousness?
Correct. This T-shirt is just one part of a more general clothing brand.
When people see the T-shirt your brother wore, what reaction do you want them to have?
I want them to think about and understand that this is a daily problem for black people. It’s what I think about every day. This is what my parents think about every day when I walk out of the house. They don’t know if I’m coming back at night.
It’s sad, and I want people to understand that it’s real.