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NBA continues to set the bar for social change

Not too long ago, it was uncommon for American athletes to be at the forefront of the world’s greatest social movement. The expectation was that athletes were only athletes— they were meant to simply “shut up and dribble,” a phrase coined by Laura Ingraham on Fox News. While basketball players’ athletic abilities are certainly admirable, there is way more to an NBA player than their athleticism. They realize that they have a platform and that people look up to them. LeBron James’ slogan, “More than an athlete” begins to hold more meaning when you look at NBA players’ deeds off the court.

This idea that players are more than just athletes has seemingly reached a climax. On August 26th, 2020, six NBA teams boycotted their scheduled playoff game in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting, and other injustices that cripple society. This will most likely extend to the 27th as well. The boycott will cost the teams, and the NBA a lot of money, but that is what matters. Every team put their money where their mouth was and followed the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks skipped their game against the Orlando Magic, and Orlando refused to accept the forfeit. The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics were among the first teams to bring up the idea of not playing, and even by having that conversation, they sparked something great. The MVP of the NBA is refused to play in a playoff game because of social injustice. That is powerful.

The strike happened due to a simple reason: the unjustified police shootings of Black people in the U.S. No one should be killed when they are being arrested or otherwise: the use of a gun should be a last resort. There are always people who are against the movement: change is always met with resistance. The strike was the first time that a sports league was this unified in demanding drastic legislative change. The players were striking to put economic pressure on the league and on the owners to do something. The owners have powerful connections: it is only right that they use them to help their players.

This change in attitude from the league towards taking a stance on social justice has been recent. It’s not like the NBA hasn’t had skeletons in its closet when it comes to its history of silencing athletes when they choose to speak out. Take the instance of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who played for the Denver Nuggets in 1996. He refused to stand for the anthem in protest of American racism and the injustices that are ever-present within the country. Abdul-Rauf cited the fact that the American flag was a symbol of oppression. The NBA then proceeded to suspend him without pay. The league and Abdul-Rauf worked out a compromise later, but the fact remained that he was forced to stand for a flag he didn’t feel allegiance to remains shameful. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also notoriously refused to try out for the 1968 American Men’s Olympic Team. Even though the U.S team won without him, what mattered was the action. The ability to protest what was wrong. It is unfair that one of the greatest players of all-time had to miss out on getting a gold medal in the Olympics: but what is even more impressive is that he decided to do it to protest injustice. Those were players that were willing to put things on the line: that history is reflected in the strike this week.

There was also the issue of Donald Sterling, an NBA owner who was notoriously racist. Perhaps nothing would have been done, had Sterling’s mistress not leaked tapes containing his racist remarks, in particular towards basketball legend, Magic Johnson. Sterling had to be forced to sell the team he then presided over, the Clippers, and got banned for life from the NBA. It’s clear that the NBA wasn’t perfect back then; it’s not perfect now. However, since those incidents, athletes have felt empowered to stand for causes they believe in without hesitation. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was one of the trailblazers for empowering athletes to make the change: think of the strike on the 26th, but also think of all the players tweeting out and demanding justice: without Abdul-Rauf and without the NBA’s shift to a progressive policy, that may have never happened.

The change begins from the top and can be seen with the most recent actions of the NBA commissioner. Commissioner Adam Silver has been credited with a lot of things, notably the Orlando “bubble” which allowed the NBA season to continue despite the current pandemic. The current culture of speaking out, can in some ways be attributed to his ability to work with the NBA players. Silver was the commissioner that banned Donald Sterling in 2014, challenging the racist culture that he was a part of. He has also chosen to relocate the 2017 All-Star game from the city of Charlotte, due to anti-trans legislation.

Silver also refused to bow to China’s demands to fire Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey after his #FreeHongKong tweet. He also ended a connection to a basketball academy in Xinjiang. Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum noted that they had “no involvement with the Xinjiang basketball academy for over a year”. While to some that may not be enough, the action was taken and the league lost revenue from China. Perhaps all Silver’s actions can be viewed as the obvious choice to make: but it is clear that Silver’s tenure has been predicated on not only business but ethical concerns as well.

Some players’ concerns about restarting the season included the fact that the resumption of basketball would take away from the movement of Black Lives Matter— distracting the country’s current social justice conversation with sports. However, with the restart of the season, it is notable that the support of the BLM movement from the NBA has been unwavering. You saw a lot of promising actions, both from players and the league. Big-name players, such as Tobias Harris and Paul George skipped answering media questions about the upcoming season,  choosing to focus the media’s attention towards the murder of Breonna Taylor. All courts now have a Black Lives Matter slogan painted on them.

Basketball is undoubtedly still going to be watched because of its sports appeal. Yet the increase in social justice messaging shows a commitment to reminding people of the issues in the United States. Before the restart of the season, you’d see others like Malcolm Brogdon (President of the NBPA) and Jaylen Brown marching during the protests in solidarity, demanding the reduction of police brutality throughout the nation. Notable owners like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks were at the protests as well, validating that the commitment to social justice is not necessarily only on the players’ end.

The players’ attempt to bring awareness didn’t seem to do enough: there has been no legislation. The recent attempt on the life of Jacob Blake has only reinforced that notion within the player community. There is talk of his criminal record: that still doesn’t warrant 7 shots to the back, leaving the man paralyzed for life. There is absolutely no reason that the police should discriminate against people because they are Black. Other examples of this injustice have resulted in the death of the Black person and the policeman going free: some of the names include Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Breonna Taylor. Nothing has changed. Thus, the NBA players decided to strike, depriving viewers of important playoff games in order to focus on Social Justice. There has never been a better moment to do so, and instead of talking about some random score, we are talking about police brutality. Their strike was obviously effective, and as fans, we need to support the players of the league we love.

BLM isn’t the only thing that the NBA supports: they have a great mental health initiative. The issue of mental health was brought up by then All-Star DeMar DeRozan who suffered from depression. It was also echoed by Kevin Love, who had anxiety. Talk about male mental health is important, and DeRozan and Love are at the forefront of challenging toxic masculinity. Their stance allows players and others to speak on what is going on inside their heads. It brings up the acceptance of the fact that we all have issues. The fact that athletes feel comfortable to stand for causes that they believe in shows the relatively new and progressive culture of the NBA.

Other exemplary off-court actions by players include lasting improvements upon voting and education in their communities. LeBron has been an example of that, leading an initiative to encourage people to vote (#MoreThanAVote). The initiative is in collaboration with other prominent athletes, which include players from other leagues e.g Deandre Hopkins. Others have given back to their community as well, with Andrew Wiggins providing scholarships to kids in Minnesota. Most people aren’t aware that players such as LeBron James built a school. Or that Russell Westbrook bought 650 laptops to help facilitate online learning in Houston. It’s not like the NBA is necessarily focused on one cause: there is community outreach on a genuine level. Almost every notable player has some sort of community involvement in the area that they play. That is a wonderful thing to see, especially when community resources can be taken away in an instant with new legislation. Legislation that supports funneling more money into police departments instead of education opportunities. 

The actions by players and the NBA have significant benefits for the communities they gave back to, and to the communities who tune into their games. In terms of demographics, an astounding 66% of people who watch the NBA are racial minorities (2016-2017 data). The correlation is clear,  the appeal of a league who upholds ethics and reaches out to local communities. As mentioned before, it’s not like the NBA has had a perfect track record. However, what is more, noticeable now, is the fact that NBA players feel comfortable with bringing up racial injustice and drawing attention to issues. The political tendencies of the NBA fans generally correlate with the opinions of most of their players. However, for the players to express those opinions freely, the culture itself had to be built up.

The NBA appeals to young people and racial minorities due to the culture of acceptance it has built. It stands behind issues that their teams and their communities stand up for. It is a hip league with superstars who will stand for causes they believe in. The same superstars reach out to their local communities to support and empower them. In drawing attention to this particular part of the NBA, I hope that we can learn something about empowering our communities and giving back. The NBA has the reputation of a progressive league, one step ahead of the rest. It’s time for the rest of the sports world to catch up.

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