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When the NBA’s conversation is not enough

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The NBA has promoted Black Lives Matter as a slogan, the Raptors have been asked about it, yet the situation in the world has not improved. What comes next?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It was striking to see some of the responses to the video of Masai Ujiri being assaulted by a police officer after the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship. I don’t need to link to the body cam footage; you’ve seen it by now. And I should be clearer: some of these responses were striking, but they were not surprising. While the majority of people were aghast at this particular cop’s use of force, others had a different take. These responses ranged from the usual dismissive racist garbage to the even more frustrating “well, at least now we have video proof.”

The violence in Ujiri’s case was, comparatively speaking, minor. Yet the blow to his humanity, right then in his moment of ultimate professional triumph, remains crushing. Even in that environment, with 20,000 witnesses and hundreds of cameras — including, yes, the one worn by the officer — Ujiri still had to insist he was who he said he was, that he was indeed supposed to be there to accept professional basketball’s highest honour. As Masai said afterwards, “I couldn’t be happy properly.”

That the footage of the incident sat for over a year, out of the light, is damning. That the Alameda Sheriff’s office, even now, is still backing their officer is infuriating (though it should be said again, not surprising). And that NBA commissioner Adam Silver could only say in response that Masai needs to remember “as a leader, those are the kinds of situations he needs to learn to avoid” should tell us everything we need to know about the league’s priorities.

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Ever since the NBA began its preparations to restart in the summer from within the Disney World Bubble, the league has made clear its intent to allow players to continue the ongoing conversation on police brutality and murderous force used against Black people. They had to concede this point because, well, the violence was once again getting to be too much to ignore. NBA players were already speaking out, some even joining protests in support, and they wanted to be assured they’d be able — and allowed — to continue to do so, even after going back to work.

The NBA is cunning though, as any of the biggest corporations tend to be. In concert with the Players Association (NBPA) and their media partners, the Black Lives Matter slogan became inextricably laced through its restarted programming. The Raptors made a strong statement by painting their team buses with it; every court was stenciled with it; and before every game we saw rows of players and coaches kneeling during the national anthems in support of it. Even the players’ jerseys, once reserved for name and number only, showed various politicized words and phrases boosting the Black Lives Matter message — Education Reform, Say Their Names, Hear Us, and more.

For his part, Toronto’s Norman Powell decided to wear a jersey with the Black Lives Matter slogan. He also spoke about his frustration with the limited options available, the only messages on offer those approved by the league’s power structure. “We’ve got a lot of guys in this league that ... have been using their voice through this time,” said Powell. “And we’re really excited about the whole thing, about being able to change our last names, and put a quote there that represents where we stand and what we want to say and how we feel about this, and I was really upset about the whole change and how we’re really limited.”

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This frustrating realization from Powell and other players was the inevitable end to the league’s entire restart plan. Once they had “solved” the obvious health and safety concerns with respect to the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the league office and the owners assured their players that they’d still be allowed to speak their mind, that the return of the NBA wouldn’t be a distraction from the social justice concerns many had already been voicing. As quickly as any dissent was heard, it disappeared. And with that, the NBA returned to business as usual — in a deeply unusual time.

As Nathaniel Friedman and Jesse Einhorn reminded us in the New Republic, it didn’t have to be this way. While the players — like any of us — wanted to regain some sense of normalcy, they too easily dismissed the leverage they had as an organized labour union. Yes, it feels perhaps a bit weird to describe a collection of celebrated millionaires as just another workforce, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. As Friedman and Einhorn argue, there was an opportunity in June for the players and their union to take a stand against the push from the league office and its owners. This organizing effort started as a chance to delve into the health and safety concerns of the restart, but from there who knows where else it could have gone. And who knows what other concessions a united front of players could have extracted.

Funnily enough, as noted in the aforementioned piece, the two sides in this debate were led by LeBron James, who was pro-restart, and his former teammate Kyrie Irving (with Avery Bradley), who led the brief players revolt. Of course, much as it has happened on the court, LeBron won out. I’ll just turn it over to Friedman and Einhorn here:

While [Avery] Bradley and Irving were fomenting a players’ revolt, James argued that if players really wanted their message of social justice to reach the public, the best thing to do was play. “Because of everything that’s going on, people are finally starting to listen to us—we feel like we’re finally getting a foot in the door,” he told The New York Times. This argument—that playing provided players with “a platform” and thus could provide the protesters with another level of support and visibility—cast social justice and labor issues in direct opposition to each other.

That last phrase is key. And it’s how we arrive at today, with a few of the Raptors talking about a possible boycott of their next playoff game come Thursday. These are words I never thought I’d hear from an NBA player in the modern day. Not after how quickly it seemed like this exact kind of dissent would be squashed, not with the risks involved in taking such a stand, and definitely not with the amount of money on the line for the league’s owners.

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The news out of Kenosha, Wisconsin is that yet another unarmed Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot by police. (Blake was not killed, but he is now paralyzed.) This follows other recent high profile cases — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the list goes on — of extreme police violence used against Black people. There’s video footage of Blake being shot by Kenosha police, but I will not link to it; maybe you’ve already seen it anyway. The responses to this incident follow the same pattern — despair and anger, the usual racist garbage, and, as always, a resolve now to do something to fix the situation. But what?

Naturally, the players were asked about it. Remember: part of the mission of the restarted NBA was to promise space to the players to talk about these issues. So it went with Toronto’s Norman Powell as he once again explained his frustration.

That’s a massive response from Norm, one that touches candidly on his emotions, the historical scope behind Black Lives Matter, and the abject handling of these cases by police. It also gets at the limits of what the league has set up here in the Bubble. As others have noted, the players are now in the unfortunate position of having to answer questions about this sort of extreme trauma almost every other day — and then they have to go out and entertain us by playing basketball. It’s not fair. And it reads even worse in light of even more police violence. We shouldn’t need any new evidence here, even more video footage, to finally demand change.

Following Powell, the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet spoke too, and he laid even more on the line in his response.

That last paragraph, to me, represents a sizable and far more radical shift in tone from at least one NBA player — and it’s been echoed by others (Jaylen Brown, George Hill, Donovan Mitchell). After festooning as many surfaces as it could with Black Lives Matter slogans, we’ve reached the practical end of the conversation the NBA can have as a capitalist institution trying to deal with social justice matters. The league gave the players a platform and assured them they’d get a chance to use it — but if it wasn’t clear already, that alone will not inspire change. I defer once again to Friedman:

So then what now? As mentioned, a boycott has been discussed. As VanVleet noted above, there’s a possible trickle down effect that could happen through that action, as complicated as it sounds on paper. He’s right, but what he’s also alluding to is a ripple effect — one team, then two, then more agreeing not to play. In this way, the league’s entire power structure gets inverted, its players’ labour union leveraging the power it has to demand changes to their working conditions. The players don’t want to see this violent footage anymore, don’t want to just talk about it every day, and they most certainly don’t want to be a target of it themselves. In response, they can refuse to work until something is done about it. That’s where it could start — but there’s an even larger ripple effect in play here, one that must now involve the rest of us.

In truth, finding solutions to structural racism and police violence is not on the players. They’re professional athletes, wealthy celebrities — role models too, but there are still limits to their platform. They may not have their hands on the actual levers of power, but it’s a mistake to believe we can’t work in solidarity with them to get our hands on the controls together. As events like Blake’s shooting are thrust upon them, we’re discovering the scope and scale of the fight — not conversation — before us, the work it will take to remake society. And while there may be limits to the power any individual player has, organized together they gain more and more. Their actions rippling outwards to make something else clear beyond the Bubble, something obvious yet hidden: together we all have the power too. This is how change will be enacted.

So, if VanVleet, Powell, the Raptors, and other NBA squads decide they will put something on the line by boycotting a game or more, then instead of asking them more questions about it, instead of waiting for more proof of the violence the police perpetrate on Black people every day, instead of playing it safe, it’s time we all asked ourselves — each and every one of us — a serious and heavy question.

What are you willing to do?