By Jeremy Rubin
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 154-111, taking a 3-2 series lead in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The game took place inside the NBA “bubble” at Disney World in Orlando. A self-sustaining world for those inside, the bubble has served as a way for the NBA to finish out the season while ensuring the health and safety of players, coaches and officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the physical isolation, players and coaches do not live in a social vacuum. They continue to use their voices and social media accounts as platforms for social justice. Following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, many athletes joined Black Lives Matter protests, calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality toward Black people.
These protests continue during a pandemic which has disproportionately affected Black and Latinx communities and laid bare the racial inequalities in all aspects of life, from healthcare to housing to the environment.
This racial injustice reckoning that our country is facing extends beyond sports. For far too long, fans have wrongly silenced athletes on issues outside the sports world.
“Being a celebrity, being an NBA player, don’t exclude me from no conversation at all,” Celtics small forward Jaylen Brown said on his Instagram Live while protesting in May. “First and foremost I am a Black man.”
Unable to attend protests in the bubble, players assured others they would continue the conversation about racial injustice in America. On opening night, “Black Lives Matter” was painted on every court, and nearly every NBA player kneeled for the National Anthem. The WNBA dedicated their season to Breonna Taylor.
On Aug. 23, two days before the Clippers-Mavs game, Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, WI.
In a press conference with Clippers head coach Doc Rivers following his team’s win, rather than asking about Paul George’s 35 points or Kawhi Leonard’s 32, reporters asked for his thoughts about this most recent shooting by the police.
A visibly emotional Rivers said, “It’s amazing, we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”
The next day, instead of the scheduled slate of sporting events, players from all NBA and WNBA teams, along with players from multiple MLB and MLS teams, boycotted their games to protest continued anti-Black racism and police brutality in the wake of the Blake shooting.
Players on the Milwaukee Bucks, whose home city is just 40 miles from Kenosha, were the first to boycott, remaining in their locker room well past the scheduled tip-off time for their Game Five matchup against the Orlando Magic. Within the hour, the other two NBA games scheduled for later that day were canceled due to boycotts.
“When we take the court to represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort and hold each other accountable,” the Bucks players said in a statement. “We hold ourselves to this standard, and in this moment we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement.”
Sterling Brown, a guard on the Bucks, recounted the time he was a victim of police brutality in an article in the Players’ Tribune from last month.
Soon after, the Milwaukee Brewers players boycotted their MLB game against the Cincinnati Reds. Players from the Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants subsequently announced they would do the same in their respective games.
Players from all six WNBA teams scheduled to play on Wednesday also boycotted their games.
“We’re not just basketball players,” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins said. “If you think we are, then don’t watch us. You’re watching the wrong sport because we are so much more than that … These moments are so much bigger than us.”
These athletes are people first. They risked their jobs and salaries to continue to protest racial injustice and continue the conversation about what tennis player Naomi Osaka called the “genocide of Black people at the hands of the police.” In the same post, Osaka withdrew from the Western & Southern Open before her scheduled semifinal match on Thursday.
Before 2020, however, athletes taking stances on issues outside of the world of sports were largely criticized by the greater public time and again.
In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs, he was arrested, and within 24 hours was stripped of the boxing heavyweight title and his boxing license. It took four years and a Supreme Court appeal to overturn the decision. In that time, he became one of the most hated men in America and lost four of his prime years in the ring.
In 1968, after they both medaled at the Summer Olympics in the 200-meter event, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black socks without shoes and raised their fists during the national anthem to bring attention to Black poverty in America and other racial injustices. In response, they were subsequently suspended from the team and banned from the Olympic games. Upon returning home, they and their families received death threats.
More recently, after LeBron James and Kevin Durant discussed racism, politics and President Trump in a 2018 ESPN interview, Fox host Laura Ingraham told the duo to “shut up and dribble.”
And on Aug. 26, 2016 — almost exactly four years ago — Colin Kaepernick protested anti-Black racism and police brutality during the national anthem by sitting on his team’s bench (he first kneeled on Sept. 1). He was widely criticized for his actions by prominent figures, including NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and President Trump, as well as fans and opposing players.
Since the end of that season, Kaepernick hasn’t played a single down of football. He took a stand, and his football career came to an end as a result. Only a month ago, after recent increased public support for kneeling and Black Lives Matter protests, did Goodell change his mind. Goodell also reversed his earlier stance and will allow players to kneel this upcoming season. No longer should voices of athletes be stifled.
For years, athletes have been told to stay in their lane by the public and people in charge of the leagues. ESPN senior NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski wrote in a recent Tweet that “this is a pivot point for the NBA and professional sports in North America.”
In early July, a group of Black athletes including LeBron James and Skylar Diggins-Smith formed More Than A Vote, a program fighting against Black voter suppression. Since then, the group has expanded to a total of 50 prominent Black athletes and artists.
“We are focused on systemic, targeted voter suppression in our community and have a specific mission: educate, energize and protect Black voters,” the group wrote in an open letter. “We are driven by a shared understanding that our influence and prominence, particularly among young people, is a responsibility to continue the tradition of Black athletes working together to fight for justice and equality.”
The NBA and National Basketball Players Association released a statement on Friday announcing three commitments “in support of social justice and racial equality.” These include forming a social justice coalition, working to turn all stadiums into polling sites for the 2020 election and airing advertisements “promoting greater civic engagement.” With this, both parties agreed to continue the playoffs on Saturday.
As the NBA and other sports begin to return, remember that sports can’t, and shouldn’t, operate in isolation. There cannot be a desire for a return to this past normalcy which separated sports from social justice issues. Black Americans continue to be oppressed by systemic racism and police brutality, and substantive change continues to be brushed aside by those in charge. Continuing to criticize athletes for their choice to boycott and their use of their platform to protest racial injustice is a willful ignorance to these ongoing atrocities.
This is bigger than sports.
Contact Jeremy Rubin at jjmrubin ‘at’ stanford.edu.