After the NFL Kickoff and a call for unity that resulted in boos, people across North America were left wondering ‘How did we get here?’
Although the American landscape looks bleak in 2020, there are still reminders in this world that there are people and fans with heart, who won’t cheer against unity and who look to the future with hope for change—That reminder is the NBA.
The NBA (while not without faults) remains the most socially-conscious & aware sports league. As the spotlight on police brutality and inequality grows, the NBA (and, let’s not forget the WNBA) were the first leagues to postpone their games, and take a stand against bigotry and brutality with law enforcement in the country.
Why does the NBA Lead on Social Justice in Sports?
Why does the NBA lead in sports when it comes to activism? While the NFL just can’t get it together, the NHL drags their heels to take a position and the MLB is well, kind of a flip-flopper, the NBA remains steadfast and dare we say, unified, in their social justice efforts.
It doesn’t take a stranger to see that while there are a slew of issues going on in the world right now, people are shining a light on police brutality, and therefore, the black lives matter movement. Like we said before, each league has a different position and process when it comes to athlete activism (or even league activism) but without dragging (more than we already have) any other leagues, this begs the question—why does the NBA take the lead when it comes to social justice in sports?
Well, the numbers for start. (I digress—This isn’t to say that people from different backgrounds can’t have a passion for activism, but it makes sense for members of a community to care about what’s happening within it.)
Back to the numbers—The majority of players in the NBA are African-American or Black (81.1% to be exact), while 32% of coaches and 23% of head coaches are Black. Now, when you consider the athletes, the viewers, and the general makeup of the American population, these numbers should be higher. But, they’re not, and at the same time they’re some of the highest of all professional sports leagues.
This likely contributes to not only individual athletes speaking out, but a teams’ collective power to take a stand on societal issues. When you have the support of coaches, executives and the ‘powers that be’, it’s easier to make your voice heard when there’s no fear of backlash.
Players are Empowered: NBA Leadership
Besides just the numbers, executives at the NBA, like Adam Silver, are known for their moves to make the league more progressive and create a space for dialogue on social issues.
Just this summer, the NBA approved a number of social justice messages players could put on their jerseys while they play. Yes, this might seem small, but for fans across North America seeing this for the first time, watching athletes they admire sporting social justice messages they believe in will undoubtedly have an impact when it comes to the issues on their mind.
The 29 statements the NBA has approved for players to put on their jerseys are:
- Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; and Mentor.
Another fact that makes NBA players more empowered to speak out versus other leagues, are players have a fixed contract—This means they can speak out without fear their contract will be terminated, à la Colin Kaepernick.
Yet, the leadership hasn’t always been so open to activism—When kneeling during the anthem become a way for athletes to protest social inequality across America, Silver was certainly opposed to it, even after terminating Donald Sterling and banning him from the NBA in 2014. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Silver described what caused the change in view—“The killing of George Floyd has been a turning point in the movement for social justice in the United States. The league, our team owners and the players had many conversations about what was happening in our country, the fact that an estimated 25 million Americans have protested over issues around racial injustice. And, of course, there’s the recognition that roughly 80% of our players are Black. George Floyd’s killing and the protests were happening right at the time when we were negotiating the return protocols with the players, and they also felt that it was part and parcel with returning to basketball that we collectively focus on these issues.”
Now, would it have been nice if these changes, like the recent steps the NBA will take to support social activism, happened earlier? Would it have been nice if they happened before NBA players decided to strike to make something happen? Certainly. But, it’s happening, which is significant, particularly while other leagues are slow to take action or have those difficult conversations.
According to a survey on ESPN, 71% of fans support the decision of athletes (among all leagues) to speak out on social justice, while nearly half of respondents said they’re more likely to support teams who speak out than they were last year. So, we’re not exactly confident that Donald Trump says the NBA is in ‘big trouble’ due to athletes uh, actually speaking out on issues that affect them.
Who? NBA Players at the Activism Forefront
So, who are the players taking a lead in the fight for a more just society? Lebron James is probably one of the first NBA players that comes to mind. Back in 2012 he and his Miami Heat teammates protested and brought awareness to Tamir Rice’s murder, and in 2014 he spoke about his passion for using his voice to support issues he believes in “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead … I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business … Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
Carmelo Anthony has also been a leader when it comes to social justice, hosting a Town Hall back in 2016 in South Central Los Angeles for members of law enforcement, the African-American and Latin/Latinx community and other community members.
This is just a drop in the bucket when you look at everything else he’s done. For one, he’s guest-edited the most recent edition of Slam Magazine with a focus on activism and social justice in the NBA and in basketball, took stage at the 2016 ESPY’s with Lebron James, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade to address social inequality and the power that athletes have when they use their voice to speak out.
In addition to taking the ESPY stage in 2016 with fellow players in the NBA, Dwyane Wade has been outspoken when it comes to racial inequality in America. He’s also been a supportive presence when it comes to LGBQT+ issues—His own daughter is transgender, and he’s been unequivocally supportive, speaking about her transition and presence as a young voice for the LGBQT+ community, saying on Instagram, “Last night was Zaya’s first red carpet and we couldn’t have been prouder of how she handled the questions that were asked of her. She has emerged as one of the young faces and voices for the LGBTQ+ community.”
And these are just three players from the NBA using their celebrity and influence to make a difference—We’ve just skimmed the surface.
NBA and Social Justice: What’s Next?
When it comes to the NBA, they’ve formed a social justice coalition comprised of players, coaches and governors and will look at issues like voting access (one condition is that home arenas will be made into voting stations), civic engagement and advocate for ‘meaningful police and criminal justice reform.’ The league also plans to work with advertisers to create advertising space in each NBA playoff game to promote these issues.
Like we said, this is surely just the beginning, and the league could undoubtedly do more to support social justice, it’s nice to see a league unafraid to change their culture, empower their players and understand the impact their celebrity has on society.