Home Opinion OPINION: NBA players want to champion racial justice. Here’s how the league can help

OPINION: NBA players want to champion racial justice. Here’s how the league can help

8 min read

Justin Thompson, a senior studying journalism, argues that the NBA needs to stand with their players in support of racial justice and do more besides just appeasing.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

On Oct. 11, the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat to secure the franchise’s 17th NBA title. Amid the falling confetti, flanked by his teammates in a nearly-empty arena, LeBron James stood defiant. 

James, who at 35 remains the most fearsome playmaker in a league full of them, added to his growing legend by securing his fourth championship. But, to discerning fans, his renowned history was truly cemented sometime in the last eight months.

James had to fill the shoes of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in January, while trying to lead his team through the most chaotic NBA season ever. In addition, he has taken a leading role among athletes in calling for racial justice and the dismantling of systemic racism. He has implored the NBA to do the same. 

When players refused to take the court in late August to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the league responded by letting players wear slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” on their warm-up shirts and inscribing racial justice messaging on the court. It was seen as a sign of progress, a step by the league to stand in support of its players.

But it was not enough. Not even close. 

The league — an international behemoth with an influence that stretches far beyond sports and into areas of culture and entertainment — has the financial muscle and organizational know-how to urge massive change in the nation’s largest markets.

A major sports league has never ventured so far from its stated purpose, or from, possibly, its financial best interest, to call for reform. But if there is a league to do it, and a context in which it could be done, it is the NBA in 2020. 

It employs, and gives a microphone to, hundreds of young Black men, most of whom have felt the sting of racism since before they could dribble a basketball. They have seen people who look like them, sometimes their friends and family, shot and killed in the streets, often with little or no provocation, by law enforcement officers who are ostensibly there to protect them. 

The league has tentatively answered their calls for change. But there is much more it can do.

In June, Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley spearheaded the creation of an NBA players coalition aimed at, “improved hiring practices for Black front office and head coaching candidates, providing donations to organizations serving Black communities and forming partnerships with Black-owned businesses and arena vendors,” said Adrian Wojnarowksi after he spoke with Bradley.

If the league is serious about its intentions, it has an obligation to bolster this coalition. Financial backing, commercials, and the eyes and ears of a worldwide audience are just a few of the resources that the league can supply the coalition to help it reach its stated purpose. 

The league and NBA Players Association have discussed how to proceed with the newfound coalition, but so far, no definitive plans have been announced. 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver should not drag his feet. He should empower the players to speak for their communities and foster reform. He should put the significant weight of the league behind the coalition and lend the group a megaphone through which they can shout for change.

That is not all. 

NBA teams populate the country’s biggest media markets and provide huge revenues for those cities in the form of tourism, advertisements and community partnerships. If the league were to yank the financial rug out from under them, those cities, already crippled by the coronavirus, would surely squirm under the pressure.

Call for change. Demand that the cities in question revisit how they train and implement their police forces. Force them to allocate some of their budget toward community education and civic services, rather than for more guns and badges. Implore them to stand on the right side of history, so that their citizens — all of their citizens — might live free from the fear that they will be shot dead in their own neighborhoods by provocateurs in uniform. 

The league has the ability and the obligation to do these things and more. “Black Lives Matter” warmups and social media blackouts are baby steps, tokens of appeasement. But they are not enough.

Real change takes courage. The players have shown it. Now, it is the league’s turn.

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