Confirming widespread suspicions that he might take legal action, NBA star Thabo Sefolosha announced last week that he would sue the NYPD over injuries sustained during an arrest.
Sefolosha, a Swiss-born forward with the Atlanta Hawks whose father is a native of South Africa, had his leg broken during a controversial arrest in April by NYPD officers who suspected he was involved in or had information about the nearby stabbing of fellow NBA player Chris Copeland. The injury, which kept Sefolosha out of the Hawks’ last four regular season games and the entirety of the playoffs. Pero Antic, Sefolosha’s then-teammate, was also arrested but escaped injury.
Sefolosha stood trial this September for three misdemeanor charges, including resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Despite officers’ testimony that Sefolosha was unruly and “charged” at them, the player was unanimously acquited by a jury that took less than an hour to come to a decision. Breaking his silence in a GQ piece to appear in the magazine’s December issue, Sefolosha explained how he rejected a favorable plea deal and risked jail time to prove his innocence:
In September I went to New York, and they offered me this deal: one day of community service, with the charges to be dismissed after six months. My lawyer said that it was a very, very gutsy move not to take the deal. I don’t think I realized quite fully how much of a risk it was. My lawyer had told me, “You’re risking up to two years in jail for all this.” But to accept the deal felt like admitting guilt.
The piece also explains the arrest from Sefolosha’s point of view, with the player saying that officers threatened to “fuck [him] up.” He explained to ESPN that the injury hasn’t fully healed, even with surgery.
Sefolosha’s civil suit will be directed against the NYPD, the involved officers and the city of New York. He stated to ESPN that he’s filing the $50 million suit in part to help set precedents for others:
“There’s a lot of unknown about how this will affect me two years from now, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Sefolosha said. “Also because I think it’s the right approach to put lights in a situation like this and to … fight back in a legal way and in a way that can empower, hopefully, more people.”
His actions have the full support of the National Basketball Players Association, the union representing NBA players. Michele Roberts, the union’s leader, explained to ThinkProgress that powerful people subject to racial profiling should have the backing and power to seek justice:
“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.”