They Have the Stage. Will NBA Players Blink?

Decades before George Floyd’s lynching was recorded, racists broke into Bill Russell’s house and defecated all over his sheets. Russell didn’t have the privilege to not go to work to protest the injustice. Russell protested while he played. He called Celtics fans bigots and called the city of Boston “a flea market of racism.” Things hadn’t changed much by the late ‘70s after Russell retired. The slurs he heard continued after the NBA merged with the ABA. What rang out during games and in bars was not the National Basketball Association but the Ni***r Basketball Association. The players heard the slurs but no one sat out games. They couldn’t. While the Magic-Bird era seemed to broker a silent racial peace, the fragility cracked when Isiah Thomas said Larry Bird got preferential treatment because he was white. Isiah was forced to walk it back.

Enter the 90’s and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protest of the national anthem. He didn’t have many NBA players on his side going to bat for him. Privately maybe. But publicly he was isolated in his anti-oppression stand. His comments about 9-11 further disenfranchised him.

When David Stern forced a dress code on the league it was because the players and their gold chains and sagging pants and headphones bleating out rap music reminded white customers of their own racial biases. They called the players thugs.

By the time Donald Sterling infamously slandered Magic Johnson in a phone call, the culture had changed. Sterling was proudly racist for two decades but it mostly went overlooked because his best friend was Jerry Buss who was a beloved owner. But in 2014, it was a new day. Players had the financial capital to determine actions.

Sterling’s racial meltdown came smack dab in the middle of the Clippers and Warriors playoff series. Both teams gave huge consideration to sitting out the series but decided their platform was bigger if they played. They could use the moment to their advantage. By then NBA players’ had influential brands, a lot of money, and the option of determining their fate.

But history is history. There are men who sacrificed for the choices current NBA players have. Malcolm X was murdered in the Audubon Ballroom on February 21st, 1965. The next day the 76ers, Bullets, Hawks, and Warriors played. Martin Luther King was murdered on April 4, 1968. The next day the Warriors, Lakers, Celtics, and Sixers played. Rodney King was savagely beaten by the LAPD on March 3, 1991. The next day the Pacers, Celtics, Suns, Hornets, Nets, Mavericks, Sonics, Warriors, Jazz, Magic all played games. To not play was to take away political and financial capital.

For those of us who have lived through ten lifetimes of racial torture, this summer feels different. It isn’t the usual: Protest. Rage. Riot. Repeat. Because a significant population of the protestors in the streets is white people- and why not, racism is their problem to fix- the context feels as if this is a historical moment that is going to, at the very least, change the militarization of black communities.

Certain NBA players don’t want to resume the season because they feel this moment in race history demands a larger response than entertainment. George Floyd’s public lynching has traumatized too many. Playing basketball, regardless of contractual obligations, seems wrong, particularly when protests are continuing in the streets of major cities. To begin training camp in July is to willfully remove players from their community. If Black Lives Matter beyond a hashtag, then NBA players should have the opportunity to continue their community activities on behalf of justice.

Except.

There are many ways to be impactful, to get a message across, to use your platform wisely, to be heard. Willingly removing yourself from the stage isn’t one of them. When the NBA returns all eyes will be on them. Not just because black men are the overwhelming NBA population, but because the United States is addicted to sports. A return to games feels like a return to normal. Except the boundaries of normal have changed after George Floyd’s murder, of which NBA players are a continual reminder.

The beautiful thing about professional basketball is that you can see the player’s faces. Faces and expressions are not hidden by a helmet or a cap. You see it all. The anger, joy, ecstasy, rage. Everything is front and center. It is that emotionality that gives NBA players power if/when they resume their season. By nature of the sport, they can connect with Americans in a way that is impossible for the street protestor. Everyone is watching what NBA players are doing and what they are saying.

I’ve heard about the so-called “player demands” to parametrize solutions. It’s a positive step and indicates players understand protesting eventually ends. Policy begins. What do NBA players want their voices to reflect? What is the consequence of their engagement? How do they want things to look three years from now? In the short term, how are they going to brand this moment? What t-shirts are they going to wear? What videos are they going to produce? (The NFL players video was so significant it forced the commissioner to say he was wrong.) What reforms are NBA players going to champion? Are they going to embrace #sayhername and honor black women killed by police? Whatever direction they take, people are going to pay attention, even those who have never watched an NBA game. This is their moment.

Because police brutality is a systemic problem with roots in commerce, slavery, and the rental contract of black bodies, reforms will take months and years to implement. Changing a culture is a time weary enterprise. But it doesn’t have to be either-or. Protest or play. It can be protest and play. Work and work. Be the change we want to see in the world.

Colin Kapernick taking a knee was a reminder that sports aren’t some separate iteration of life. Sports are competition and entertainment. But they are also a mirror of the men who are devoted to it. Human men with racial trauma. Human men who know how to lead others.

So NBA players. Lead. Mentor. Embrace the intersectionality of sports, protest, and racism. Create the template for the ordinary people of the world to do the same thing in their professional lives. Make it your business. Make it your burden.