Social Justice Saturday: professional basketball takes a lead in the fight for racial justice

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.

1968 Olympics 200-meter medal ceremony

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.

Colin Kaepernick, 2016

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.

Toronto Raptors celebrating their wonderful championship win in 2019 with their jubilant fans. Over a million people turned out in Toronto for a parade and ceremony. We the North!

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!

Players and coaches take a knee together for both anthems at first Raptors-Lakers game

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.

Kyle Lowry and his jersey

Marc Gasol and his jersey

OG Anunoby and his jersey

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.

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20 Responses to Social Justice Saturday: professional basketball takes a lead in the fight for racial justice

  1. Jean says:

    I wasn’t aware of the NBA participation….because I don’t watch basketball at all. It gives an extra purpose for the teams…especially donation of their money.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Yes, and many of those ball players are very active in inequality and racism activism because they grew up that way. They stay involved with their communities and are good role models.

  2. elvisteg says:

    Excellent read,I believe social justice, racial justice start with people of color. We need to do more for us and for our community first. We need to appreciate the benefit of being part of this amazing country and culture by putting more effort in our communities, in our families and playing as role in the society. Certainly a lot has been done but we still need to do more. It is should be genuine not driven by economic interests. That is why I feel half and half about what the NBA is doing.
    https://edulers.co/5-ways-people-of-color-can-have-a-better-life-in-america/

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your important voice. Surely, any and everything that can be done to solidify and strengthen communities of colour is critical. And the more that can be done by people of color for people of color the better. But I hope you agree that there’s also a role for supportive white people to play in making significant and sustained changes. We need to be part of the solution, not just part (almost all) of the problem. Re not being driven by economic interests, I know what you mean. However, it seems to be what works. For example, when the corporations came to realize a few years ago that more people than not were in support of gender identity issues vs the bathroom laws, they withdrew their business from states introducing such laws. There are other examples. So as more people get the pervasiveness and cruelty of systemic racism, it may be the clout of the corporations that can have additional impact. NASCAR changing their tune is an example, however reluctantly. Anyway, my hat is off to you and your initiative. This world has got to change, and it needs to work from every vantage point.

      • elvisteg says:

        I absolutely agree. I think it is when we come together as a community that we can find longstanting solutions that work for everyone. Solution that fix our country for better. Because it not about them against we or we against them. It is we all as Americans looking for solutions that work for we all. Because if my neighbor,my grocery store worker, my nurse, my bus driver… can’t provide for his family then there is no way I can’t find peace. That is because ironically we all live in the same square block.
        So we need to find a way, figure out something to come together and work together in mutual respect and understanding.. Because we can’t do without the other person.

  3. iidorun says:

    Thanks for highlighting this! There is definitely something to be said about who “controls” the message – there are no BIPOC owners of any NFL or NBA team except for Michael Jordan, but there are more Black coaches in the NBA than in the NFL. Sports personalities have huge platforms and I’m glad they are using it for good!! As you are! ❤️

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I am beyond proud of the NBA players who have basically made this happen in order for the season to restart. And they have enough support from management to have pushed it through. Now it’s up to all of us to follow their lead. The reality, Irma, is that I get less traffic on my social justice posts than others, but the theme is too important to me to give up on. Good luck with everything you must be dealing with right now, like with your kids going back to school in some way or other.

      • iidorun says:

        Thanks, Jane! I feel we need more than luck with this coming school year. Don’t underestimate the influence of your posts. I’ve been forwarding them far and wide (as I’m sure others are). Your writing is excellent – clear, concise and competent (meaning you have a great grasp of the topics). Keep it up! You may not be an NBA player, but you are still an MVP in my book!

  4. Glad you shined a light on this, Jane. Of course, it does all go back to Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City. I can still remember watching that moment on TV (a black and white set — how perfect) and knowing even as a young child that I was watching history in the making. I’m still so angry that Kaepernick has never been hired by an NFL team, but his legacy lives in so many players now, in multiple sports. – Marty

  5. Hooray for the Lakers and the Raptors. And NBA. I especially liked what you wrote: “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!”
    Yes!

  6. I was really moved when I saw the Raptors bus pulling into Florida, a striking black bus with Black Lives Matter emblazoned on it. As the team and sport is dominated by people of colour, they are well positioned to champion this cause and I am so glad to hear they are. Especially in the states, blacks have had a high profile in professional sport for decades where they are hailed as heroes. So different from their lives as second class citizens off the court. Go Raptors!!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for adding your voice, Jill. I agree. Couldn’t be more proud of the Raptors and the NBA. The path to combat racism is a very long one, and these voices are very important to ensuring a success journey.

  7. Inkplume says:

    I love this! I watch football and was angry at the expulsion of Kaepernick.i didn’t think his peaceful gesture was disrespectful. And for those who do, since when did respecting a flag become more important than respecting black lives?

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