“It’s been unbelievable…all our players, everybody, had a voice on what’s going on in America.”
Those were the triumphant words of LeBron James, minutes after winning his fourth NBA Finals and Finals MVP following a 4-2 Los Angeles Laker victory over the Miami Heat, as he reflected on the social justice initiatives the NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) adopted during their time in the league’s Orlando bubble.
James confessed, “We know we all want to see better days,” before reminding NBA bubble participants that “when we leave here we gotta continue to push that.”
That the NBA will depart its bubble is about the only certainty in the league’s future. Other than the draft, as of Thursday, the start of the 2020-2021 free agency period and season has no official date. No one, including NBA executives, knows what next year will look like. Still, the uncertainty ahead did not stop NBA commissioner Adam Silver — who was among those James thanked for spearheading the league’s social justice commitment — from speculating about what the NBA’s social justice initiatives might look like going forward:
“We’re completely committed to standing for social justice and racial equality…how it gets manifested is something we’re going to have to sit down with the players and discuss for next season. I would say in terms of the messages you see on the court, on the jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time…My sense is there’ll be somewhat of a return to normalcy, that those messages will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And, I understand those people who are saying ‘I’m on your side, but I wanna watch a basketball game.’”
Though its broad appeal is not as high as it was in June, a majority of Americans still express some support for the Black Lives Matter movement, meaning — in theory — messages of racial equality would be, at minimum, tolerated in a league which boasts the United States’ most liberal fanbase. Pair the NBA’s liberal viewership with its consistent ranking as the top North American sports organization in racial and gender hiring efforts, and Silver’s pivot away from clear emblems of racial justice appears awkward — gesturing towards a wavering commitment to the NBA players and social justice activist with whom the NBA pledged to align itself.
If the NBA is really the United States’ most progressive sports league, an admittedly low bar, it is time they move out of the optical activism sphere and into the nitty-gritty of systemic overhaul and community organization. Painting “Black Lives Matter” on the courts and wearing the message on warmups closely associated the NBA with the Black Lives Matter movement, but it was just that: an association. The display did little to uproot the socioeconomic, judicial, cultural, or legal barriers Black Americans unjustly confront every day. Even a pledge from team governors to donate $300 million dollars over ten years to “[accelerate] economic growth in the Black community” amounts to one million dollars a year for ten years from some of the wealthiest Americans, many of whom start their net worth estimations with a B.
This lack of an ambitious, urgent commitment of resources from the NBA governors frustrated many players who chose to enter the bubble, leaving some questioning their decision to participate in the league’s restart, and wondering about the sincerity of the majority-white governors’ commitment to fighting racial inequality. Player frustrations with the one-sided nature of the bubble activism reached a boiling point during a players’ strike spawned by the Milwaukee Bucks’ refusal to play a playoff game against the Orlando Magic the day after cops shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, a mere forty miles north of Milwaukee’s arena in Kenosha, Wisconsin. James and NBPA President Chris Paul — with an assist from President Obama — successfully leveraged their work-stoppage to secure three concrete commitments from team governors moving forward: the immediate formation of an NBA social justice coalition comprised of players, coaches, and governors, focusing on advocating for social justice issues; the NBA would air TV spots promoting the importance of voting in the upcoming election during the playoffs (in the finals, Paul announced that over 90% of NBA players were registered to vote); every governor would turn their team’s stadium into a voting site. If an application deadline had already passed, facilities were to be offered for voter registration and ballot reception.
This new level of commitment from the board of governors — though failing to net more money — seemed to satisfy James and his peers as the NBA resumed playoff competition three days after the Bucks’ strike. Creating a body of oversight for racial matters within and without the NBA, promoting civic engagement in players and viewers, and making democracy more accessible will tangibly affect Black NBA players, viewers and Americans far more than the slogan or message the league displays on its courts and warmups. Indeed, Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Obama told GQ that if James’ More Than A Vote — which many NBA governors have partnered with to turn their arenas into voting sites — had existed in 2016, it could’ve changed the outcome of the election.
Going forward, the NBA can’t sit back on the progress it made in the bubble; clearly, that’s not James’ intention. The NBA must meet players’ enthusiasm and commitment for activism in demonstrable ways if they want to credibly call the bubble social justice efforts a success. The NBA’s social justice coalition should mandate governors give more than $1 million dollars a year to local Black businesses and higher education opportunities; the NBA should consider legislation which creates more hiring opportunities for Black and women coaching candidates and executives; crucially, the NBA must continue expanding its community presence as a force for increasing the wingspan of our democracy. Structural change in the NBA could take many different forms, but if NBA courts are to be stripped of their social justice trappings ahead of next year’s regular season it should only be because the NBA is finally pursuing activism and community organizing models of systemic upheaval — the kind it began implementing towards the bubble’s conclusion.