The NBA’s players might not want NBA approval anymore

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Earlier this month, I published a piece in this space that discussed, in part, how NBA players had missed an opportunity to wield their collective power by giving in to the league and resuming the season amid a pandemic and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. Nathaniel Friedman and Jesse Einhorn, at The New Republic, went much further and deeper on that particular angle in a feature titled, “The Dismal Politics of the Sports World’s “Wokest” League.”

Within that piece, Friedman and Einhorn explained how there were two opposing camps when it came to the return: the one led by Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley wanted to tackle this moment in time by not playing, and instead do what they could to help and bring attention to the Black Lives Matter protests. The other camp, led by LeBron James, was more in concert with the NBA, with a different vision of activism. One more corporately approved, the thinking behind which led to this graph from the New Republic pair:

[LeBron] James’s approach has become the dominant mode of NBA politics. Under this paradigm, players see their interests as intertwined with that of the league. James wants to play out the season because winning a championship is good for his brand. Similarly, his loftier social justice goals are achieved in a putative partnership with the league itself. What’s good for the NBA is good for James and vice-versa. Achieving social justice starts to become synonymous with winning another ring.

James isn’t wrong that the voice of the greatest player in his sport, maybe the greatest of all-time, would carry additional weight: right or wrong, we know society tends to function in this way. That doesn’t mean it’s the most effective or the best strategy to employ, though, but by the time this discussion was made public, we already knew the NBA was returning. Irving and Bradley opted out and vanished from the discourse for a time, but now they, and their point of view, are back in the spotlight.

That’s because the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t play in the scheduled Game 5 of their first-round playoff series on Wednesday. The Bucks were responding to yet another police shooting of yet another Black man, Jacob Blake, and they decided that playing games with league-approved social justice slogans on the back of their jerseys wasn’t cutting it anymore. Their opponents, the Orlando Magic, weren’t let in on this happening, but they responded by refusing to accept the team’s forfeit. The Bucks gesture — which was not a boycott despite it being labeled as such, but was a political strike  — inspired the other teams scheduled to play on Wednesday: rumors began to circulate that the Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trailblazers game, would also not be played. LeBron James, by the way, plays for the Lakers, and tweeted out, “FUCK THIS MAN!!!! WE DEMAND CHANGE. SICK OF IT” to his 47 million followers as those rumors circulated.

That feels like the action of a LeBron who is no longer as convinced as he was that playing was the way to draw attention to police brutality. News released late in the evening confirmed that the LeBron of Friedman’s and Einhorn’s piece might be becoming a thing of the past, as well, as it turns out James’ Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers voted to stop playing the rest of the playoffs entirely, not just one game.

And this level of dedication to the cause is needed, too, as the NBA was quick to postpone Wednesday’s three playoff games, rather than let the players be the ones who decided they won’t be played. If you’re feeling charitable, the NBA didn’t want to leave the players to take the heat that striking could bring by themselves. It was the players’ call to do so, though, so the NBA’s move mostly served to show that the “wokest” league going can still infantilize its players, and more importantly, that they weren’t going to just stand around and let players control their own narrative. The players did something outside of the corporate-approved form of activism the NBA relies on, and the response from the league was swift. They couldn’t rebuke the players, not without harming their public relations, but they could attempt to suck some of the rebellious air out of the room and let fans know that their all-important playoff game would be rescheduled at the earliest opportunity.

Telling and concerning was that the NBA’s union signed on to the NBA’s statement, meaning someone in union leadership made that call… unless you think the union somehow managed to get on a call with the NBA and survey every one of its members in Orlando shortly after the Bucks said they weren’t playing. I’m admittedly an outsider here, but this kind of thing, to me, speaks of a union that is a little too cozy and ready to work with the league it sprung out of. There is working together for a shared vision, and there is working to create the league’s vision. The speed at which the NBA return plan came together when there were still, clearly, unresolved issues in play, and the speed at which the NBPA signed on to this NBA statement about postponements, really makes you wonder if the latter is what’s important to the PA’s leadership.

The Bucks acted without union leadership’s authority, much like Irving and Bradley, through unsanctioned video calls, hoped to convince their fellow players that the return deal that union leadership agreed to wasn’t the right one. LeBron James, his fellow Lakers, and the Clippers don’t want there to be a season anymore. There will be another meeting on Thursday morning in Orlando where the prospect of not playing will be discussed further — maybe LeBron will be able to convince other players of the need to not play, in the same way he was able to wield his influence to ensure that they returned to play in the first place.

Now, obviously, with just two teams voting to stop playing, the majority of the NBA’s players aren’t necessarily for acting in a way that runs counter to what the NBA and its owners want. But two teams is two more than the NBA had feeling like this just a couple of months ago. Discussions Thursday could further increase that figure. If nothing else, it could be the start of NBA players realizing that their corporate-sanctioned activism isn’t going to have the impact they hoped it would, and that something else, something more, is needed.

Maybe the players haven’t missed the window to wield their collective power just yet. Maybe they’ll manage it on this second pass, as they come to the same conclusion Boston Celtics’ and NBA legend Bill Russell did back in the 60s: that not playing was their most powerful tool, that not playing was the thing that would get the attention and the action needed. Russell, his Black teammates, and the Black players on the Celtics’ opponents, the Hawks, refused to play after a coffee shop in the players’ hotel in Lexington, Kentucky refused service to two Black players, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders. The game went on without them, with the white players still playing, much like some MLB teams played on Wednesday despite their Black teammate(s) sitting out, but Russell’s point of view was forever changed, and eventually, so too was the league’s.

What Russell said about this incident* continues to resonate today, and it would be wise of modern players to heed these words:

I think of athletes as entertainers. One of the ways the American Negro has attempted to show he is a human being is to demonstrate our race to the people through entertainment, and thus become accepted. I am coming to the realization that we are accepted as entertainers, but that we are not accepted as people in some places.

How is today any different, when “shut up and dribble” remains the prevailing attitude for entire swaths of this country? There are people who absolutely see Black athletes, musicians, actors, whatever solely as a source of amusement for them, but not as people with rights and reason to exist beyond that. How else will you reach these people, or affect them in some way, without withholding that entertainment? Without forcing them to see you as people, instead of something lesser?

And two years after Lexington, Russell had this to say to Sport magazine about that moment:

“For a great number of years, colored athletes and entertainers put up with those conditions because we figured they’d see we were nice people mostly and, in some cases, gentlemen, and they’d say, ‘Those people aren’t so bad.’ I’m not insulted by it, I’m just embarrassed. I’m of the opinion that some people can’t insult me. But it was the greatest mistake we ever made because as long as you go along with it, everybody assumes it’s the status quo. I couldn’t look my kids or myself in the face if I had played there. A man without integrity, belief or self-respect is not a man. And a man who won’t express his convictions has no convictions. I feel the best way to express my convictions is not to play. If I can’t eat, I can’t entertain.”

That status quo line remains as insightful today as it was in 1963. If sports are playing, life feels somewhat normal. Life shouldn’t feel normal now, though. Life for Black people is never normal in this country: as Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers recently pointed out, and the Rockies’ Ian Desmond also said while opting out of MLB’s season, no amount of money or fame will make you less Black in the eyes of the police, and it won’t save you from their brutality and murderous intent.

Not playing is how NBA players get the NBA owners to use their exceptional resources and the political clout that comes with it to bring about change, rather than by donating those resources to police forces, or far-right Republicans, or simply settling for some league-approved slogans and calling it enough activism for the day. Not playing is how NBA players can better serve the movement, to not serve as the distraction Irving warned about, to not uphold the status quo. It was true in 1961; it remains true in 2020.

*The Washington Post unearthed the book page with this quote in it, for this story, so, I wanted to acknowledge that they saved me some time on finding it with a link. Read more about Bill Russell, who ruled and rules.

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