The NBA Gets It, the NFL Doesn’t, and Stephon Clark Is Still Dead

Before the Kings-Celtics game in Sacramento, a city in grief and shock,  both NBA teams wore black t-shirts acknowledging Stephon Clark who was killed one week ago today in the Meadowview neighborhood of Sacramento. On the front of the shirt it said Accountability, We Are One. On the back was #Stephon Clarke. Accountability means police accountability and district attorney accountability while “we are one” expresses the solidarity of the NBA family clinging together in the face of a tragic situation: a man killed in his grandmother’s backyard- 20 shots fired- with the only weapon on him a cell phone.

The NBA is an outlier for sports teams intermingling protest with achievement. Most sports teams are uncomfortable because it shines a light on marginalized communities; it makes their fans choose.  Regardless of the land mines, the NBA recognizes social responsibility as an opportunity to be humanistically moral and at the same time be expediently outraged. For a 15 minute pre-game ritual, it allows players to feel recognized, listened to, heard.

It can go two ways. The NBA can recognize that their labor force are adults and not robots and allow expression in approved time frames, or the league can act as oppressors and incite a war with their own employees.

The approach the NBA has adopted doesn’t just allow for freedom of speech. Under Adam Silver’s watch, the league encourages players to speak up and out and take a stand. They know it makes the league better when the players care about what is going on in the world, particularly since nearly every country in the world plays basketball. It gives the players agency as citizens who want to make the world a better place.

Unlike the NBA, the NFL ended their season in turmoil and fan backlash. Many players made a stand against police brutality during the national anthem. The protest, and the President’s racist (some say white supermacy) vitriol against the protestors, turned the owners and the league itself into villains who came off as oppositional to black lives mattering. By silencing their work force, the NFL was complicit in the very thing they were trying to ignore.

Not learning much of anything about the past few months, Houston Texans owner, 80 year old Bob McNair, who referred to NFL players as inmates and then had to apologize, said this (on the same day the NBA players asked for accountability): “Our playing field is not the place for political statements and not the place for religious statements. I think we need to respect our flag and respect our country.”

McNair defended Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, who is selling the team after being investigated by the league for making racist and sexist comments to employees. McNair justified it as saying Richardson was misunderstood, in essence, blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator, straight out of the white privilege, sexual harrasser playbook. It’s you, not me. You just don’t have a sense of humor. It’s going to be another volatile NFL season, a league that had a ratings crash while the NBA has had the 2017-18 ratings go through the roof and attendance an all time high.

The NFL is losing fans not just because protesting black players remind white fans they are watching human beings and not props and that those humans are black with black lives and concerns, but because the concussion issue has hit the NFL hard, and the young players have not developed into the mega stars like veteran players Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.  The games are often lopsided and boring without much reason for watching and the league seems to hate a segment of their players; one of those players, Colin Kapernick, is suing the league for collusion.

But arguing about letting players exercise their first amendment rights or anointing old white men who are trying to Make America Whiter Again changes nothing about Stephon Clark. He is still dead. His children still have to grow up without a father. His grandmother will open up the blinds, look into her yard and see the spot where the blood leaked out his body. Stephon Clark was dead yesterday. He is dead today. He will be dead tomorrow.

The Kings-Celtics gesture was commendable just as the “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts a few years ago were brilliantly well said and had a similar effect. But at the end of the day, the t-shirts don’t change squat other than let everyone know what they knew before. NBA Cares isn’t a slogan. It is truth and empathy, if it cannot be justice and peace.

The marches and the conscious and the sorrow have had their turn, and the NBA, the woke-ist sports league in the U.S., did their part. DeMarcus Cousins is paying for the funeral of Stephon Clark. Nevertheless,  a 22 year old man is dead.