Twenty-two teams. Walt Disney World. Non-stop hoops starting at noon every day. Picture Jimmy Butler rising up for a buzzer-beating three point shot over Victor Oladipo, while Joel Embiid heckles from the bleachers as if it was an AAU tournament. This is what the NBA bubble could look like when the league returns to play come late July. Sure, NASCAR has resumed action. Tom Brady pitched in beautifully from over 100 yards out in The Match Part 2. Of the four major sports in the U.S. however, none have seen live action since the Spring, or March Sadness as the true college basketball fans are calling it. With an agreement reached between the NBAPA and Board of Governors to come back as soon as July 31st (with details remaining to be finalized), a new hurdle has arisen, one not solved with masks and rapid testing. There have been growing concerns among NBA players that returning to play could be a distraction from the current Black Lives Matter protests. While the general populous is craving any semblance of normalcy, there is a real argument to be made that such a thing detracts from the largest social injustice movement since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Led by stars Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard, the idea of sitting out has gained some traction, although many NBA players have posed questions to the vagueness of such an action.
Indiana Pacers starting point guard Malcolm Brogdon, a vice president of the National Basketball Players’ Association, led protests in Atlanta with the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown. On an episode of The JJ Redick Podcast, Brogdon acknowledged the uneasiness of playing a mere game at a time of such civil unrest, especially one with a player makeup that is more than 70% black. At the same time, he questioned which situation, playing or sitting out, allows players to do more good for their communities. “My thing is if you’re going to sit out, you have to have demands, have to have policies you want to see change,” Brogdon said. He and other players support Irving’s and Howard’s sentiment, but want to see a tangible plan in place.
Los Angeles Lakers’ Dwight Howard received criticism for an appearance on CNN for failing to give details that Brogdon and others would like to see. Howard told Don Lemon, “Me and Kyrie [Irving] feel that we just need to become one, we need to become united, all of us. This is the one moment in time when all of us are hurting.” Howard is certainly correct that unity is essential at this inflection point, among all races, genders, religions and others. However, in the nearly six-minute interview, he failed to answer Brogdon’s question of what action he wanted to take or policy changes he and Irving sought.
The major sports networks’ ability to drive narrative has painted Irving’s and Howard’s stance as largely unpopular, but there are black activists outside of basketball who would also like to see players sit out. Lakayana Drury, who is African-American, is a co-chair of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing and is the director of a non-profit, Word is Bond, which seeks to improve relations between police officers and young black men. Drury posted a letter on Twitter to his favorite NBA player, Lebron James, who has stated he does not believe players should sit out. Commenting on the ownership demographic of the NBA, Drury writes, “The majority white owners of the NBA have been largely silent in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the movement sweeping the nation. They can’t wait for you to get back on the court and line their pockets and give the American public a distraction…” There are only three non-white majority owners of NBA franchises, and the league even changed the name of its owners to the “Board of Governors” in an effort to separate itself from a slave owner connotation.
Drury has a valid point about the majority white owners, however the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver have established themselves as the most politically progressive sports league in the United States. Not only did Silver push the ownership group name change but one of his first moves as commissioner was to ban former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and force him to sell the team after a long history of racism and prejudice.
Richard Lapchick, who is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, has created race and gender “report cards” for each major U.S. sports league since 1988, according to The Atlantic. In 2015, the NBA was the only men’s league that received an “A+” for racial hiring practices from Lapchick. The league certainly has room for improvement in its action toward social justice, for example increasing the number of racial minority owners, but it has clearly demonstrated a willingness to hear others out and attempt to do better.
James, who has not responded to Drury’s message, has been the most active player off the court for many years as an activist and entrepreneur. In 2018 James, along with Lindsey Vohn, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cindy Crawford, founded ‘Ladder’, a health and wellness company. James owns his own media company ‘Uninterrupted’, with business partner Maverick Carter, and runs the Lebron James Foundation, which opened the “I Promise School” in 2018. The public school specifically supports at-risk children in Akron, Ohio and has produced incredible early results for helping its students academically, personally and financially. Just a small number of his non-basketball endeavors, James has done all of this without sitting out from basketball.
He has recently organized a group called More Than A Vote, educating the black community on how to vote, how to register to vote and how opposing powers are trying to restrict their ability to do such. Playing basketball in front of millions of viewers provides a platform for him to push that campaign.
Players are not only able to take off-the-court action while playing, but the hardwood has been a platform for protest since Silver took over. In 2014, James and teammates wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warmups at a game in Brooklyn, paying tribute to Eric Garner, who died in police custody after officers put him in a chokehold. The movement spread outside of the Cavaliers’ and Nets’ locker room. In the following days, NBA stars Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant were two of many more who led their teams in the shirts during warmups. Prior to a Detroit Lions game, running back Reggie Bush wrote “Can’t Breathe” across his shirt in warmups.
On-field and on-court protests have played integral roles in social justice movements. Sports is an escape for many from the stress of daily life, especially politics. By taking action in that setting, athletes have the ability to take away such blissful ignorance, forcing the face of change into a space few turn away from. In the 1936 Berlin Games, Jesse Owens considered sitting out in protest of Hitler and the Nazi’s supreme Aryan race ideology. Instead, he went into the heart of hatred in the Western world and took home gold medals, disproving the racist theory to all the world. The son of a sharecropper, Owens went from picking 100 pounds of cotton a day in his youth to breaking world records in front of the worst autocrat in global history.
In the 1968 Olympic Games, just months after Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, several black athletes on Team USA deliberated on the thought of sitting out. The Mexico City boycott quickly lost its appeal to the athletes, however. As Tim Layden writes in Fists of Fury, “They wanted medals.” As no formal plan of protest came to fruition, several members of Team USA agreed some form of action was necessary, but at what cost?
IOC President Avery Brundage had supported giving the Olympic Games to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1936. When Jim Hines was the first black American to earn a gold medal at the Mexico City Games, his lone form of protest was the refusal to shake Brundage’s hand. Layden described it as “a significant act that went largely unreported.” It was two nights later that one of the most iconic moments in American sports history would be born.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two black American runners, were two of the favorites entering the 200-meter event. When they finished first and third respectively, the whole world’s eyes were on them. Standing atop the platform to receive their medals, they made history as the Star-Spangled Banner played. Smith and Carlos each raised a fist in the air wearing a black glove, one of the most powerful moments in all of the Olympics. Even after being expelled from the Olympic team and struggling to find employment following, the two runners’ eternal imprint was made.
Now imagine that moment in the 2010s, with social media stripping the ability of those in power to silence such protesters. This is Colin Kaepernick.
In 2016, the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers sat on the bench during a preseason game as the national anthem rang throughout the stadium. Intending to protest the systemic racism and police brutality that has swept America since its inception, many took offense to his actions, saying it disrespected the flag, the military and veterans. In response, Kaepernick sought out the advice of former Green Beret and NFL veteran Nate Boyer to find a respectable means of protest. Boyer advised him to take a knee.
Kaepernick’s simple kneel began a league-wide movement, as nearly the entirety of some rosters imitated what he had done. It also became one of the most significant sources of social discourse in recent memory. Some may argue it gave the likes of Jerry Jones a way to unauthentically support the players, kneeling with them but then rising for the anthem. Some may say it got Kaepernick blackballed (it did) without spurring real concrete change. No one, however, can deny the profound impact it had on the intersection of sports, race, politics and culture.
Players such as Irving and Howard have the same goals as all of us: effecting positive change toward racial equality as a united force. With all eyes on the lone major U.S. sport set to return this July, could they be missing the chance to use their voice on a historically great platform by sitting out though? Picture players kneeling during the anthem (currently against NBA rules), stands filled with other NBA players and their families wearing “I Can’t Breathe Shirts,” video messages during game breaks in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Think about Lebron James hitting the gaming winning shot in game 7 of the NBA Finals, bringing a trophy back to the City of Angels, and then turning to the camera to say “Breonna Taylor” to millions of viewers. There is no right or wrong answer to the question of sitting out the NBA season over social unrest. Players can make a change off the court. They can also certainly make a change on it, maybe under today’s circumstances more than ever before.