Writer: Liam Gallagher
People have looked up to sports icons as role models and standard bearers for as long as sports have been popular. In response to this idolization, some athletes have used their platform to leverage social change. Some of the greatest in sports history have also been the most vocal in speaking up in favor of societal reform. Curt Flood was the first baseball player to challenge the oppressive nature of the reserve clause, a clause which removed the rights of players and instead allowed franchises to be the puppeteers of their fate. Muhammad Ali used his platform as a world-renowned boxer to protest the war in Vietnam and demand racial integration in the United States. John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics in protest of impoverished living conditions of Black people in the United States. Protesting social injustice has become common for athletes over time. Despite the practice falling out of fashion with the ascension of tight-lipped superstars like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, a recent wave of athletes have intertwined sports and activism inextricably.
Unless you’ve been using Internet Explorer and are six months behind the news cycle (which raises questions about how you’re reading this, but I digress), you have undoubtedly been privy to the national discourse concerning the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the overall mistreatment of Black bodies at the hands of the police. Accordingly, athletes have been using their status and platform to direct light on these atrocious issues, and move apathetic or racially-blind Americans to see the country in a new light. While athletes from every sport have been integral in helping to sustain these protests, the role of NBA athletes is particularly interesting.
Away from the court, dozens of players have been photographed and recorded attending protests across the country, and some players have begun producing a TV program to call for action against Breonna Taylor’s killers. But while individual players have exercised their rights to free speech effusively, the league as a whole has yet to make any substantive statement similar to the messages of its players. Recently, the NBA was applauded for allowing players to swap out the traditional names of the backs of their jerseys for a set of predetermined phrases, like “Black Lives Matter”, “I Can’t Breathe”, “Say Her Name”, and others. Yet, I have mixed emotions about that decision.
On one hand, it is great that the NBA brass has recognized the sport’s power to influence social change. Uplifting its players (instead of silencing them) is a great approach, and contrasts sharply with the NFL’s approach to Colin Kaepernick’s statement against racial injustice. The NBA has also announced plans to paint ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the baseline and sideline of every court, showing, at minimum, a surface level commitment to uplifting Black voices and shedding light on racial injustice.
While these plans do seem good on the surface, they have the unintended side effect of silencing the NBA’s Black voices. Providing a set list of statements deemed appropriate for the backs of jerseys is inherently limiting; the phrases players are allowed to wear are muted and fail to highlight some of the main sentiments of the national protests, like “No Justice! No Peace” and “Defund the Police”. To me, the approved phrases highlight a contradiction between the NBA’s words and actions. While they pat themselves on the back for “uplifting” their players and promoting social change, in reality they are placing limitation on their players by refusing to allow them to speak their free and unadulterated truth; that is to say, the NBA is more concerned about appeasing its corporate sponsors than it is concerned with actually advancing the movement.
A great anecdotal (and recent) example is Jimmy Butler’s recent appeal to remove both social justice phrases and ‘Butler’ from the back of his jersey entirely. To quote Butler, his rationale was to appear “no different than anybody else of color.” Despite this noble and heart-felt gesture, the NBA inexplicably denied it. Why this example might be mundane in a vacuum, it illustrates the NBA’s inability to truly elevate Black voices outside of the system they have constructed.
The NBA’s limitations have caused some players to decide against returning to play, and to instead enact change outside of the NBA’s traditional channels. Players such as Avery Bradley and Wilson Chandler have cited these causes as reasons for avoiding the NBA’s restart. Although it is an impossible question to answer, it bears asking; can the NBA survive without the support of the very people who made the league what it is today?
One idea which has been tossed around by NBA superstars such as Kyrie Irving is the creation of a Black owned and operated basketball league to compete with the NBA. While this suggestion was met with criticism by league pundits around the country, I believe there is more merit to the idea than most are giving. The vast majority of the NBA is Black (81.%); without Black bodies, the NBA’s talent pool would be vastly inferior. Despite Black bodies’ presence in the league, they fail to have that same representation in front offices; just 10.7% of all CEOs and Presidents during the 2019-2020 season are People of Color. This lack of racial diversity from those in charge of making decisions on an organizational level is telling— the league’s tone-deaf response to the loss of Black lives highlights and illuminates our nation’s tradition of refusing to properly acknowledge Blackness when it’s not bringing in millions of dollars in ticket and jersey sales.
The NBA’s treatment of racial issues has revealed two things. Firstly, the NBA needs to do a better job of listening to its players’ voices by truly providing them with an avenue to comment on their discontent with the system. Secondly, the NBA needs to hire more Black executives in the front office to accelerate the first principle. The NBA is constantly lauded as being the most progressive sports league in America, but frankly, that is not saying much; while some would view this as praise for the NBA, it is more aptly described as a condemnation of how American sports address race.