Social Justice Saturday time again. When I started this series I didn’t expect to be writing a post on social justice leadership in professional sport, but as I think about it more fully, I should have. It’s been there for a long time, brave voices from African-American athletes taking a stand on systemic racism. It’s just that their voices haven’t been listened to. Or, more to the point, it’s that the rich white guys in charge didn’t like them rocking the boat one bit and quickly shut down the courageous few as troublemakers.
Think the Black Power salute of two U.S. track and field athletes at their 1968 Olympics medal ceremony. Tommy Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village for giving what they called human rights salutes. All three medalists, including Australian Peter Norman, were wearing human rights badges.
Think Colin Kaepernick, the NFL 49ers quarterback who kneeled during the national anthem at his games in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial inequality in his country. That was all he did. He knelt during the national anthem, to give the message that his country could be better. Kaepernick’s kneeling action had its supporters and its detractors, not surprisingly. The eventual response of the rich white guys in charge was to call him on disrespecting the flag and ban any further kneeling. Of course, it was the message he was conveying that was the threat, not any true belief that his intent was to disrespect the flag. Just as the Black Power salute had been a threat. A threat to the status quo. Shut up and play is the reply; live by our rules or get out. He hasn’t played football since. And to his immense credit he hasn’t stopped in his civil rights crusade.
It took the Black Lives Matters movement after George Floyd’s murder to give Black athletes and their non-Black supporters the courage to say enough is enough. We have a voice and this is too important to shut up anymore. Sure, you’re paying us well, but we are fellow citizens. So are our friends and extended families. So are many of our fans who grew up like we did. We should not have to fear the police and teach our kids to fear the police, we should not have to accept inferior education, we should not have to accept being excluded from voting in our own country, and we should not have to accept inadequate access to healthcare. It’s time for society to wipe out the scourge of racism.
And so we come to basketball. I happen to live in a family of huge basketball fans. Fans of playing the game, fans of watching the game, and passionate fans of the current NBA Champions – Canada’s Toronto Raptors. I had been vaguely aware that many NBA players had been participating in Black Lives Matters protests in the past few months. But I hadn’t realized until the NBA session started up again this week that they had taken several further steps. Major steps. I couldn’t be more impressed. Talk about leadership. Talk about taking your voice and making it count.
It turns out that many NBA players weren’t sure that they wanted to resume the basketball season at all if it meant giving up continuing actions against racism. They didn’t want a return to basketball to distract from or diminish anti-racism activism. But they have found a resolution. [For those of you who don’t know how the NBA is moving forward safely to resume play in the time of COVID, all the teams involved are fully sequestered in Disney World for the 2-3 months that it will take to finish the playoffs. Living there, playing there. No families, no guests, no audiences. Just the players and staff. So definitely no protesting.]
As a result of this concern, owners, coaches, staff, and players all agreed that this sequestered season of play would have a continuing focus on the many issues around racism and social injustice. Among other initiatives that are part of this Disney World season, players are able to wear a social justice statement in place of their names on the backs of their jerseys. The teams agreed upon 29 statements to choose from.* Some of the international players have their statements on their jerseys in their home language. For me, at least, it is truly inspiring.
At the Raptors’ game opener against the Lakers, both teams knelt for both the American and Canadian National anthems, in one line together, with their coaches exchanging places so they were positioned with the other team as an increased sign of unity. I read Thursday morning that President Trump considers the NBA actions disrespectful to the American flag and won’t watch basketball anymore. Surely this is a sign that the NBA is on the right track!
The NBA is comprised of a large number of players, many of whom are African-Americans, but also white Americans, Black and white Canadians, and players from Africa and Europe. It also includes a group of mostly white owners and coaches. They are in agreement: things must change. We must use our collective voices to ensure the push for awareness and action continues. We need to do far more to overcome the inequality and cruelty brought about by racism. Everywhere in the world. Period. And professional basketball can help make that change.
Putting their money where their mouth is, the NBA announced this week the creation of a new NBA Foundation. The 30 team owners will contribute $300 million over 10 years to support Black communities in economic empowerment. The foundation will also support continuing programming around the themes of racial equality and social justice.
The NBA joins the NFL in this approach; in June the NFL announced a $250 million fund over 10 years to ‘combat systemic racism’ in the US and support the fight against the ‘ongoing and historic injustices faced by African-Americans’. This from the league that turfed Colin Kaepernick. Perhaps the tide really is turning. Oh Lord, let’s hope so.
As Toronto Raptors’ star Kyle Lowry says, “We need to be heard from. We need to speak loud and clear.” The NBA players are doing their best from their sequestered location in Disney World. We need to follow their good lead.
* List of optional and agreed-upon social justice statements being worn by NBA players in lieu of their names: 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.