| USA TODAY
Amid uncertainty on when and how the next NBA season will start, the league’s players remain certain of one thing.
After spending the season restart addressing systemic racism with words and actions, they have no intentions of confining their activism to the bubble.
“Those commitments that the players have made to these issues are not going to fade at all,” Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told USA TODAY Sports. “Their passion is real and it’s genuine. Their work will continue. Collectively, the NBPA’s work will certainly continue.”
A majority of players took a knee during the national anthem and wore social-justice messages on the back of their jerseys, and the courts in the bubble had “Black Lives Matter” painted on. Will those symbolic efforts continue?
“I don’t know,” Roberts said. “We’d like to think our work doesn’t begin and end with symbols. If that is all we did, shame on us. If that is all we need to do going forward, shame on us. If we don’t have ‘BLM’ on the court, though, does that mean shame on us? I don’t think so. At some point, those things become a little gimmicky.”
The NBA and NBPA have not determined whether they will continue their game-day protests. The NBPA is focused on whether it will follow the NBA’s proposal to start the season around Christmas. The NBA and NBPA also await clarity on what the league’s salary cap will be and when free agency will begin following the virtual draft on Nov. 18.
Before the Finals, however, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league supported the players’ protests partly because of “extraordinary circumstances” – namely that players were in a bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic while protests raged across the country following several police shootings of Black people.
“There are a lot of fans, especially given all that’s going on in the world right now, who look to sports as a respite,” Silver said. “I’m listening, and I understand that point of view, too. But these are unique times, and I think that given the circumstances, I still firmly believe it was and is the right thing to do.”
Not everyone thought so. President Donald Trump and son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner often criticized the NBA’s players for their protest gestures. They also argued the acts contributed to the league’s television ratings decline.
“If you think for one second that I spend time worrying about what Donald Trump and Jared Kushner say about our players, think again,” Roberts said. “People can support who they support. But I don’t view what the players do or don’t do, and should or should not do, based on what the president and his son-in-law say.”
Initiatives over slogans
The NBA adopted a rule in 1981 that stated “players, coaches and trainers must stand and line up in a dignified posture along the foul lines” during the national anthem.
With the NBA resuming its halted season without any fans, however, the league supported the players’ desire to send messages through the telecasts – allowing protests during the anthem and messages to be displayed on jerseys and the court itself.
“Having that language painted on the court is powerful to see up close and personal and on the television screen,” Roberts said. “Whether you agreed with it or not, you had a conversation about it. That’s critical that people are talking about these issues.”
The NBA and NBPA, however, consider initiatives to be more critical than the symbolic protests. As Roberts stressed, “I always did, and I always will.”
The NBPA partnered with Vote.org to create an online voter registration database for players, filmed public service announcements to increase voter registration and hosted guest speakers to discuss social justice issues. The NBPA reported that 96% of the league’s eligible players have registered to vote, a stark increase from the 62% that were registered before the season restart.
After auctioning off the players’ jerseys with social justice messages, the NBPA donated $250,000 of the total proceeds to support 18 different organizations that help increase voter turnout and address voter suppression. While LeBron James and other NBA players have overseen similar efforts with “More Than a Vote,” Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum and former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal launched the #MyStartingFiveChallenge, which entailed encouraging people to vote by nominating them via social media channels.
The NBA has reported 23 of its 30 teams will have their arena or practice facilities open as a polling site before and during Election Day. The Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks hosted the “Team up for Change” summit, which featured panels with league officials, coaches, players and activists. And the NBA’s Board of Governors and the NBPA have collaborated on the newly formed NBA Foundation, “dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.”
“From a league point of view, maybe it’s easier to put millions of dollars into local initiatives and not do the stuff that doesn’t cost much because it provokes a lot of attention and controversy,” said Douglas Hartmann, a chair of the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. “But on the other hand, I think the stuff that is symbolic gets the audiences’ attention. For activists, that’s kind of the goal – to keep this on people’s radar on the agenda.”
Other sports activist experts shared a different view.
“It’s significant. But if there’s too much of it, it loses its impact,” said Herbert Ruffin, an associate professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University. “It is necessary to keep it in people’s minds. But when there’s too much of it, it becomes background noise.”
Trump and Kushner have often made the background noise louder. After the Milwaukee Bucks staged a walkout before their playoff game against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, Kushner said: “I’d like to see them start moving into concrete solutions that are productive.” Recently, Kushner contended the protesting in the NBA “was doing more to polarize the country than it was to bring people forward.”
The Trump administration has never acknowledged the NBA’s community efforts, or the increased commitments the NBPA received from the league and its owners after staging the walkout.
“Either they’re not paying attention or they’re just lying. It’s not true,” Roberts said. “On the one hand, they tell us to ‘shut up and dribble.’ But when we say ‘No, and we’re going to actually do something,’ they say, ‘Well you’re not doing enough.’ If you spend that time trying to please that section of the world, then in my humble opinion, you’re wasting your time.”
Next steps for NBA’s social justice movement
NBA players’ voting initiatives have focused on participating in local elections as opposed to just focusing on the presidential race between Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
“One will hope that no matter the outcome, the organizing and demands for change continue,” said David Leonard, a professor at Washington State University who teaches classes on the politics of sports and is the author of “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness.” “There’s a danger that if Biden wins, there’s this belief that everything is going to change or everything will become perfect. But the issues surrounding criminal justice and police reforms, these are longstanding and institutionalized that transcend any single moment. Though the election clearly matters, what happens after the election is also important.”
Among the plans to continue the movement after Nov. 3, owners of all 30 NBA teams how vowed to contribute a total of $30 million each year for the next 10 years to the NBA Foundation. The NBA and NBPA plan to have ongoing talks on how teams can improve diversity among the coaching, front office and ownership ranks, as well as ensure greater inclusion of Black-owned and operated businesses at team events.
The NBA and NBPA have also formed a social justice coalition for each team, which will include players, coaches and governors to promote civic engagement and advocate for police and criminal justice reform. To oversee these efforts, both parties created a Board of Directors that includes Silver, Roberts, team owners (Charlotte’s Michael Jordan, Atlanta’s Tony Ressler, New Orleans’ Gayle Benson, Toronto’s Larry Tanenbaum) and players (Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes).
Roberts stressed, however, that the NBPA will not scrutinize owners that contribute to political candidates or causes that have not supported racial justice efforts.
“I am not of the view that there needs to be a litmus test for somebody to be a part of this sport,” Roberts said. “Because you’re a Republican is not, in my view, anything other than that you are a Republican. Look, we’re not idiots. We know that not everybody that is an owner of an NBA team is a progressive in that definition of the word. We have people who contribute to politicians and parties that others abhor. The only litmus test is whether or not you respect the rights of every member of the community.”
In other words, the NBPA won’t tolerate any owner that shows any outwardly racist behavior, like former Clippers owner Donald Sterling did.
“We don’t really spend a lot of time questioning the politics of the teams anymore than I would expect them questioning the politics of the players. You wouldn’t even want to see me if I heard some owner say, ‘I heard that so and so voted for or is campaigning for so and so and I think that is inappropriate and he should be fined,’ ” Roberts said. “If somebody’s behavior is that offensive, then let’s identify and talk about it. But the fact there are Republicans and there are Trump supporters, it is not among the things that I lose sleep over.”
Instead, the NBA and its players plan to channel the attention they created with their symbolic protests toward their initiatives.
“Where do we go from here? We don’t stop,” James said. “I hope people continue to use their platform.”