BDL 25: The NBA, social activism and a change we need to see in 2016-17

Ben Rohrbach
Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3706/" data-ylk="slk:Carmelo Anthony">Carmelo Anthony</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3930/" data-ylk="slk:Chris Paul">Chris Paul</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3708/" data-ylk="slk:Dwyane Wade">Dwyane Wade</a> and LeBron James address social activism at the ESPYs. (Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James address social activism at the ESPYs. (Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.

As much as I’d like to believe police won’t shoot another unarmed black man and politicians are through legislating against the LGBT community, I’d be naïve to think we’ll even last the upcoming NBA season without another human rights atrocity.

And because NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his league’s biggest stars have oft voiced their opinions on such issues, we can fully expect them to do so in 2016-17, like it or not. Me? I like it. But only if their considerable voices don’t ring hollow.

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I applaud Silver for fulfilling a pledge to pull 2017 All-Star Weekend from Charlotte in response to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — commonly known as the bathroom law, although its ripples have a more wide-ranging discriminatory effect on the LGBT community — and with the NBA left an estimated $100 million in revenue.

Since then, Gov. Pat McCrory has watched polls flip in his opponent’s favor during this year’s gubernatorial race in North Carolina — just four years after winning by an overwhelming margin — largely a result of challenger Roy Cooper hammering the incumbent on HB2’s negative economic impact. A State Senator dropping the Crying Jordan meme on McCrory’s face probably didn’t help his public approval, either.


That’s real change.

Meanwhile, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul opened the ESPYs this summer with a call to action in opposition to a broken system that’s allowed gun violence and a racial divide to seep into its cracks. As four of the nation’s most recognizable black men, the NBA stars spoke louder than any previous statement on the subjects of gun violence, racial profiling and police brutality.

“We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence — we do,” James told the L.A. crowd and 5.89 million viewers at home. “But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing to create change?’ It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we honor Muhammad Ali — the G.O.A.T. — but to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, speak up, use our influence and renounce all violence. And, most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”


Their speech was important, not just for furthering an uncomfortable conversation in this country, but because it opened the discussion to everyone, including those most often trying to silence their voices. There was no mention of “Black Lives Matter” for the “All Lives Matter” crowd to misinterpret as black lives mattering “more” rather than “as much.” In their plea to end violence, they included Chicago, Dallas and Orlando, supporting police officers and denouncing retaliation against them, to avoid those who will simply recite statistics that suggest young black men kill each other at a rate far higher than police officers do, as if both aren’t a problem.

That’s how real change begins.

It’s no coincidence Michael Jordan published an essay entitled, “I can no longer stay silent,” not two weeks after the ESPYs aired, pledging a pair of $1 million donations to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

It’s perhaps also not coincidence San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted to sit during the National Anthem in protest of injustice and oppression six weeks after LeBron called for pro athletes to speak up and renounce all violence.

None of this is to say NBA protests are always motivated by the right reasons or that all NBA players are uniform in their beliefs. Take Thursday, for example, when two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry and Hall of Fame inductee Shaquille O’Neal took opposite ends of the Kaepernick spectrum, respectively saying, “I applaud him for taking a stand,” and, “It’s his constitutional right to do that, but I’d never do that.”

But the NBA, as an organization, has been on the right side of history more often than not in recent memory. In the last 15 years, the league welcomed the first African-American majority owner, first openly gay player and first female coach, all while ridding itself of owners with a checkered history on race. And with the highest percentage of black players, if any league has a voice on such matters, it is the NBA.

It will be interesting to see how the NBA’s front office responds to any potential protests during the season. In the past, for example, the league allowed James and others to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts without repercussion in the wake of an unarmed black man’s death at the hands of a New York police officer, but the WNBA levied fines for uniform violations against players wearing plain black Adidas T-shirts in solidarity with the Minnesota Lynx’s public statement on racial profiling.


So, how will the league react if, say, Carmelo Anthony sits during the National Anthem? After all, former NBA commissioner David Stern fined and suspended Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for taking a similar stand against oppression 20 years ago.

The fact the NBA season opens two weeks before an election that hinges on two of the most wildly unpopular and divisive presidential candidates in history only furthers potential for the NBA and social issues to converge. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of Donald Trump. Former NBA players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Collins both spoke at the Democratic National Convention. And Silver counts himself among Hillary Clinton’s campaign donors. In related news, Dennis Rodman — the Hall of Famer and “friend for life” of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un — endorsed Trump.

Meanwhile, active NBA players have been quiet for the most part since the ESPYs, which is not to say they haven’t been active in their communities behind the scenes. There’s a natural desire to remain out of the public eye in the offseason. Whether another public statement looms during the NBA’s 2016-17 campaign, we shall see.

The larger question is whether pleas from LeBron & Co. will result in anything substantial. Conversation is important, and they started the discussion this summer, but we’d be naïve to think human rights violations will subside without further action from those with the means to apply political pressure and enact real change.

Nobody knows that better than Wade, whose cousin Nykea Aldridge — a mother of four — was shot dead in the crossfire of gang violence while pushing a baby stroller on the South Side of Chicago’s Parkway Gardens neighborhood. Within 24 hours, the Republican nominee for president managed to twist Aldridge’s death late last month into a political commentary about himself — three days after claiming he could end Chicago’s violence in a week, based solely on an alleged conversation with a top cop.


So, yeah, as much as I’d love to believe we’ve heard the last empty promise from a politician in the wake of violence and inhumanity, I’d like to see NBA players fulfill their pledge to “be the change we need to see,” so that others may follow their lead.

Previously, on BDL 25:

Chris Bosh’s increasingly hazy career prospects

Kevin Durant sets about winning back our love

Stephen Curry’s search for an encore, and for invincibility lost

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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