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Why the hell are some NBA players paying a visit to the Pope?

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After the NBA made a great show of coming together in support of social change and Black Lives Matter, what we’ve seen since then is... not much — and a coming visit to the Vatican.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There was a big hubbub, as you may recall, that began during the extended 2019-20 NBA season after a few principled players and then an entire team decided to sit out a post-season game. This led to another team sitting out, and then more after that, necessitating an entire league-wide stoppage in play during the 2020 playoffs. This was the players’ response to the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Wisconsin. The action was largely referred to as a boycott — that term was used here on HQ too — but in retrospect, it could most clearly be defined as a wildcat strike. The players, as a unionized labour force, decided to unilaterally sit out a game to protest what they felt was an unjust situation. And the NBA, its management structure and owners, was forced to figure out a way to address those concerns.

Now, the issues in this case remain as very broad ones. They were and are not specific to the NBA itself; they’re not related to salary or revenue sharing or pension plans. Instead, they relate to the country — indeed the world — in which these players ply their trade. They’re wealthy people, these players, when compared to the average citizen of, say, America or Canada, but as has been clear for a long time: that doesn’t matter in matters of race. So while the NBA sought to define itself as the “Black Lives Matter” league — as well they should, since most of the players are Black — it immediately became apparent they could do very little to stop violence directed at Black people. Especially violence done by the state itself, by so-called trained police officers in every law enforcement agency in the country. While wealth does tend to insulate a person from such concerns, it does not create a perfect barrier — not even for the league’s own players, including Sterling Brown, then on that Bucks team first to say no to playing in their next scheduled game.

So the players sat out for a few days and everything regarding the bizarre 2019-20 season looked to be on the brink. This after people in America had organized and carried out large protests in various cities across the country against police brutality and structural racism. For a brief period it looked like the players, whether it had been their original intention or not, would succeed in tearing the veneer off the entire enterprise of professional sports too. The Raptors’ Fred VanVleet, for example, started talking about what leverage the players had in that moment, how theoretically they could start pushing the owners to lobby their local political officials to effect change. Perhaps it was pie-in-the-sky type thinking — it’s not on professional athletes to solve the world’s problems, after all — but it put a spotlight on some of the NBA’s darkest corners, the vast pools of money being made by an ownership class willing to make a dollar any way they can and who have structured society to ensure they keep those status quo systems humming in their favour. People were in the streets in angry protest, and it almost felt like the players were asking themselves if they could or should be too.

To write in this way tends to make a person like me sound like a wild-eyed conspiracy nut, so I’ll back off the ultimate end here, which gets us reflecting on the evils of capitalism and the fearsome intertwined force of white supremacy as a tool designed to divide and conquer the working classes — including, yes, millionaire professional athletes — around the world. The point here is, the noise got loud enough that the NBA had to respond. And that response included the formation of a committee of players to address the broader and very legitimate concern of social justice in North America. There were other concessions made as well, of course, including turning each team’s arena into a voting centre (which didn’t really happen) and for the NBA to create some more TV commercials in support of Black Lives Matter (and, coincidentally, promote the NBA itself), but the committee was seen as the main win.

The players had to be given some reason to continue the season, to resume play, to — for lack of a better phrase — just shut up and dribble.

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If I may, a brief interlude. We should note that LeBron James, hungry for his next NBA title which he would indeed go on to win in early October, called former U.S. President Barack Obama to speak to the players in this brief moment of crisis. As came out afterwards, Obama urged the players to commit to finishing the current NBA season. Now, whatever happened in those meetings between players, however it was reported, and whoever said what to whom, we can indeed point to Obama as one of the voices in the room that convinced the players to forgo any further radical action. His ideas were instead to vote in the coming election and to form that aforementioned committee to address the grander matter of social justice in America.

It remains unclear which institutions are supposed to do the “standing” mentioned in the tweet above. It’s also unclear what “values” Obama is discussing here. In any case, it doesn’t matter. As mentioned, the NBA playoffs resumed, the Raptors eventually lost their series against Boston, the Lakers kept mowing down teams on their way to the Finals, and LeBron got his title. Back to reality!

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NBA owners immediately began pushing to start the 2020-21 season as soon as possible. The financial reasons for this particular motion were obvious then as now: the league needs as many games as it can get to keep the TV money flowing and to stave off losses associated with the lack of gate receipts at the arenas. (I forgot to mention the global pandemic specifically so far, but we’ve been living with it for awhile now; you know the drill. We can’t gather inside in large numbers, which makes watching basketball games in-person an impossibility.) Players have a stake in this too — they want to get paid! — but some owners, and the structure of the league itself, depends on getting teams back on the court as soon as possible.

And so we arrive at today. Training camps for the 2020-21 season are set to open on December 1st. The league’s free agency period has been as wild and robust as ever, with players moving every which way — into and out of Toronto too (though they’ll play in Tampa thanks to the mismanaged pandemic response). And yes, that social justice committee, complete with a board of governors made up of coaches and owners and staffed by players like Brown, Harrison Barnes, and Tobias Harris, has indeed come together too. We could maybe ask what those players can and will say to some of the league’s owners, like the DeVos family in Orlando trying their best to undermine the public school system for profit, or Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores who makes his money off mass incarceration, or even Clay Bennett, who sits on the committee and has done his best to distance himself from the energy industry speculator cowboys with whom he rode into the NBA. I’m not saying this would be the discussion on Day 1 of the committee, but it would be worth an afternoon conference call at some point, don’t you think?

As reported on Monday by Shams Charania of the Athletic, however, we now have some concrete information on what the NBA’s committee for social justice will or could entail in the future. With the season coming, and with a new President on the way in Joe Biden (a man who has vowed to stand with his country’s police after making a career expanding the nation’s prison-industrial complex), this committee’s first major action is... to.....

......visit the Pope of the Catholic Church....

In Vatican City, which is in Italy.... during a global pandemic.

We’ve gone past an unlucky thirteen-hundred words here, so I’ll just end this and ask:

WHAT THE HELL DOES THE POPE HAVE TO DO WITH SOLVING SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES IN NORTH AMERICA?