Ever since the NBA announced that it would return to action on July 31, debate has swirled around two central questions: Would the bubble be safe, and would the playoffs boost or distract from the national Black Lives Matter protest movement that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin and three other Minneapolis police offers on May 25? The first question has been answered in the affirmative twice now, but the latter remains very much unsettled.
We’re now several days into the NBA’s official restart, and thus far broad social justice concerns have been plenty visible. Players and coaches are addressing issues they care about via social media campaigns, Zoom and televised interviews, and symbolic gestures, most notably during the national anthem, when a vast majority of players and coaches have taken a knee. The NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on its courts and, through talks with the player’s union, enabled social justice statements to be worn on the back of jerseys.
So far, the players’ most visible call to justice has been on behalf of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old EMT who on March 13 was shot to death by three police officers as they carried out a no-knock warrant at what ended up being the wrong home. Players like LeBron James, Jerami Grant, Tobias Harris, Marcus Smart, and Paul George have used the NBA’s platform to demand action from Kentucky Attorney General David Cameron.
Still, some players and activists look at the NBA’s stubborn push to hit the restart button and see corporate greed concealed by performative action. They worry that basketball headlines will drown out any anti-racistmessaging — after all, allyship and solidarity, devoid of concrete action, can be a form of pandering.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, who alongside Kyrie Irving was a leading voice in a player’s coalition that demanded more investment from their employers in issues ranging from hiring practices to partnerships with black-owned businesses, was one of the first to make this point back in June: "Regardless of how much media coverage will be received, talking and raising awareness about social injustice isn't enough," he told ESPN. "Are we that self-centered to believe no one in the world is aware of racism right now? That, as athletes, we solve the real issues by using our platforms to speak? We don't need to say more. We need to find a way to achieve more. Protesting during an anthem, wearing T-shirts is great, but we need to see real actions being put in to the works." (Bradley eventually chose not to compete in the bubble out of concern for his family’s health.)
Former NBA player Len Elmore, who teaches a course at Columbia University titled Athlete Activism and Social Justice in Sports, agrees with Bradley: “Many people, they want to put the strife and the potential divisiveness of addressing the issue behind them. I get it,” Elmore says. “But nevertheless, the focus on sports does take away the focus—no matter how many signs you put up, no matter how many patches on your jersey—it takes away from the dialogue. The NBA is the only sport that has a minority majority fans, if you will. And the movers of this particular movement, you’re hopeful that they don’t get caught up back into the sport, to the detriment of losing focus on the issue.”
Nearly 75 percent of the NBA’s players identify as Black or African American. After Floyd’s murder, many of them took to the streets. They marched in peaceful protests and, in the case of Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, even organized their own. They walked arm-in-arm with alarmed citizens, activists, and organizers, drawing attention to the tentacles of racial injustice, from segregated education and housing to criminal justice. At the same time, some have also been fearful of showy displays that won’t go far enough.
“I don’t see us going down there and wearing George Floyd T-shirts before the games and then after a game, being interviewed, saying we need to change,” Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton told The Denver Post in late June. “We’ve been going through this for 400-plus years now. I feel like the only way for real change is going to come is a revolution.” And six weeks before he risked it all for Magic City’s lemon pepper wings, Clippers guard Lou Williams said he was 50-50 about returning: "The point that some of the guys are raising about not playing is, basically, we don't want to be a distraction.”
But there is also a firm belief among some players, coaches and activists that using the season to draw attention to inequality can coexist with action. “We want to be a distraction in the household of families that are struggling during this time and are really being united again by sport,” Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said. “But while they’re being united, they’re also recognizing the importance that the NBA is placing on the fight for social and racial justice in this country. So I don’t think it’s an either/or. It’s an and.”
Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and longtime human rights activist, believes the worldwide attention NBA players draw can only help a movement that’s in constant need of acknowledgement. Based on recent conversations she’s had with NBA leadership, teams, players, and coaches, Tometi is pleased that they see their involvement as an obligation.
“It’s clear that in these times we need everyone to use their voice and platform to ensure that every Black life matters,” Tometi wrote in an email. “The league is doing exactly what it should be doing: standing with the people, the community that cherishes the sport, and the community where many of the players are from.” She continued: “The notion that [NBA games and activism] are separate or that one distracts from the other is naive, and short sighted. Our modern day social movements are literally inviting everyone from every industry to use their privilege and platform to highlight the most egregious issues of our day. The players and the league have a responsibility to act.”
Dr. Peniel Joseph, a civil rights scholar, author, and founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs, agrees with Tometi’s point about the power of exposure. “I would say we have to concede most things are very performative,” he said. “Some people will say ‘Hey, we don’t need the slogans’. I do think you need the slogans because you have NASCAR and the Confederate flag, those things were always very powerful and getting rid of them is powerful because the message that is cast is always the opposite of Black Lives Matter.”
Nevertheless, now that games are being played and awareness of myriad issues is on display, the question remains: What comes next? NBA organizations, owners, coaches, and players will eventually have to dig deeper if they really want to see legislative change and a dismantling of society’s racially-based hierarchy.
As LeBron told the New York Times when rolling out his More Than a Vote campaign: “Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us — we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door. How long is up to us. We don’t know. But we feel like we’re getting some ears and some attention, and this is the time for us to finally make a difference.”
Racism will not be defeated overnight, and long after the bubble passes consistent action will be necessary. What role should and will the league and its players have going forward? “Some people march. Some people go to the capitol building and they're focused on legislation. Some people are focused on abolishing things. Some people are focused on bringing awareness,” Pierce said. “LeBron is choosing to play and bring an enormous amount of awareness and action to what he’s doing while he’s playing, so I think we have Colin Kaepernick and Maya Moore in the form of LeBron James.”
Before the wave of anti-racist enthusiasm crashed onto America’s shores in late May, Pierce already understood the importance of education and advocacy. The first organization he partnered with after the Hawks hired him in 2018 was the Georgia Innocence Project, where he and his wife have made donations and helped publicize their mission.
He also struck up a relationship with Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer who wrote Just Mercy and founded the Equal Justice Initiative. “I purposely have not brought him to our team yet because I think his impact is greater than a Zoom meeting,” Pierce said. “I want to get him in person in a greater platform with our guys than an hour session.”
Similar conversations are happening throughout the league. In June, the San Antonio Spurs invited Dr. Joseph to address the organization. Joseph took questions, and explained why the country’s numerous injustices remained so prevalent, using historical context from slavery up until today.
“This moment has just been one of massive education for many, many groups, including Black people,” Dr. Joseph said. “I mean, I’m fortunate to be in a space where this is what I do for a living, but not everyone can dedicate their entire lives to this. Just like they are working on their jump shots, we’re working in this space.”
Players aren’t social activists, and even beyond their willingness and ability to invest in smaller social justice organizations that can use the funding—“Don’t do Southern Poverty Law Center, do something that’s Black led,” Dr. Joseph said—another way they can impact change is by leveraging their vast social and professional networks.
“They can do a lot in the anti-racist space because a lot of times Black athletes are among the only Black people that everybody—from Fortune 500 companies, to venture capitalists, to high Wall Street financial capital, private equity—would even be willing to be in a meeting with, who’s Black,” Dr. Joseph said. “So they can be connected to “defund the police” and explain that to people, because that’s the new abolition. Abolishing prisons. The players, they’re all mini entrepreneurs, all of them. Even a person who’s getting the minimum league salary is making an enviable amount and is going to have agents, lawyers, publicists, just different people who want to be connected with that player. So if that player can introduce that network to Breonna Taylor or anti-racism criminal justice reform, that would be big.”
But even in the short-term while players are inside the bubble, there are still opportunities to organize and promote ideals that increase the probability of societal sea change.
“I would love to see a second summit, like the one Jim Brown developed with some of the NFL players, that also included Kareem and Bill Russell,” Elmore said. “Set up a list of priorities and have guys effectively accomplish them through the powers that they have. And it’s not necessarily their money that we need. We need their visibility, we need their commitment. And the people that want to say shut up and dribble, that’s great. It’s even better for the cause, to show the stupidity and the bankrupt thought that comes from people who say that.”
Etan Thomas, a former NBA player and the author of We Matter: Athletes and Activism, believes more of an onus should be placed on the league’s true power brokers. “If you think Dan Gilbert doesn’t have any political influence and power in the city of Cleveland or Glen Taylor in Minnesota or Jerry Reisndorf in Chicago or Mark Cuban in Dallas you are greatly mistaken,” Thomas wrote in an email.
Thomas thinks even more can be done: “What if they used their power and influence to pressure cities to threaten to cut the funding of police departments if they didn’t adopt tangible police reform and enforce police accountability? I bet you would see immediate results just as you did with the Washington Football Team.”
Along those lines, the Hawks, Pistons, Hornets, and Bucks have supported plans to turn their stadiums into polling places for November’s election. According to Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, the Heat have petitioned Miami to turn their arena into a polling site, as well.
It’s understandable for some to view the NBA’s actions inside the bubble as protest-tourism, but baby steps are necessary. They shine a spotlight on this nation’s defining trauma, in a country that’s forever been stuck at the mercy of those who don’t want to look.
“I’m hopeful. I’m optimistic,” Pierce said. “I also understand that the visibility of what we think and hope the change will look like, you won’t clearly see that for a long time,” Pierce said. “But we have to take every necessary step down that path that we can.”
Originally Appeared on GQ