When Jaylen Brown looks at the back of his shirt, he doesn’t see his name printed across the shoulder blades, or the number 7 that he’s worn as the Boston Celtics’ guard for the last four years; all he sees “is a Black man being shot seven times in the back.”
Brown was referring to Jacob Blake’s shooting by the police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. “His kids will never unsee that. His family will never unsee that. And frankly, I will never unsee it.”
When the NBA playoffs came to a heartbreaking end for the Utah Jazz, their shooting guard Donovan Mitchell Jr. found some helpful perspective, “People lost their family members to police brutality and racism.” Donovan had made a crucial mistake in the latter stages of the game against the Denver Nuggets, but he was able to recognize that his pain was largely insignificant, “This is a game. The way I’m feeling now is nothing compared to that.”
The NBA, whose players are 80% Black, is the most progressive sports league in the United States. Its players are encouraged to speak out and in recent years, many have found their voice to address the cruel inequality and racial prejudice that continues to blight their communities. After the death of Eric Garner on a New York City sidewalk in 2014, LeBron James wore a T-shirt bearing Garner’s final words in a policeman’s chokehold – “I can’t breathe.”
In 2020 though, after the high-profile deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the players have found new oxygen with which to express themselves. But words no longer seem to be enough and their frustration is becoming evident; in August, the Milwaukee Bucks made the emotional decision to hit the playoffs with a wildcat strike – a move that captured global attention and threatened to derail the rest of the season.
Amid all this, the LA Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers removed his facemask with the letters ‘VOTE’ and fought back the tears to make his case: “You don’t need to be Black to be outraged, you need to be American and outraged. And how dare the Republicans talk about fear; we’re the ones that need to be scared.” The 58-year-old Rivers, whose father was a cop, wrestled with the injustice of it all, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”
His words, barely edited, were quickly turned into a campaign advertisement by The Lincoln Project – Republicans against Donald Trump – and viewed millions of times in just a few days.
In turn, the President – who is aligning himself with the police as he campaigns for re-election under a “law and order” banner – has taken note. Trump branded the NBA “highly political” on Twitter, claiming that was the reason their ratings were “WAY down.” He warned football and baseball of emulating basketball, “because the same thing will be happening to them.”
Trump’s claim that speaking out on social justice issues has dented NBA ratings is a dubious one. Because of the coronavirus delay, these games are now being played in the summer, when television ratings are typically lower. And they’re not all being shown in primetime. But during the first round of the playoffs, Nielsen ratings showed that the NBA made up nine of the top 10 most-watched sports programs, and the basketball helped broadcasters TNT and ESPN to be the most-watched cable networks during primetime among all key demographics.
Regardless, just as he did with Colin Kaepernick and the NFL’s protesting players in 2016, Trump has identified a group of high-profile athletes that he can cast as the enemy and it appears both sides will have plenty to say before the presidential election on November 3rd.
The players seem to be prepared for the fight, but over the last few months they’ve come to realize that talk is cheap; actions speak much louder than words. As Detroit Pistons’ power forward Blake Griffin put it: “It’s very powerful to be a part of something that changes the culture and changes the system. Can’t just be words on the back of a jersey.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the end of May, cities across the country became scenes of impassioned Black Lives Matter protests. Having witnessed days of protest right on the doorstep of their State Farm Arena in Atlanta, the Hawks announced that they would directly offer support to the community. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told CNN, “You saw the youthful energy on the streets, and you saw people protesting. But it struck me that the only way to achieve real change is to vote.”
In that moment, the Hawks decided to convert their arena into a massive voting facility. A local runoff election in the summer proved to be a successful test run for what’s to come in October and November, when the arena will boast 300 election machines and a team of young, tech-savvy professionals, all trained in the service industry, who will welcome voters inside to help them cast their ballots.
The Hawks were the first sports team in the country to propose this modern way of voting and in the months since, and many NBA teams have pledged to do the same. And other teams from other sports are also following suit.
Koonin told CNN that instead of voting in cramped municipal buildings like libraries and schools, his organization could offer something much better. “We have a staff that should be able to move through thousands of people an hour,” he said. “Our staff is working it as if it were a game.”
The fact that an Atlanta sports team became the first to propose the initiative won’t have been lost on civil liberties campaigners. Two months before the election, the ACLU of Georgia reported that state officials had likely wrongfully purged 200,000 names from the electoral roll. Executive Director of ACLU of Georgia Andrea Young said “On the one hand, I was deeply saddened and on the other side, not entirely surprised.” 2016 Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has partly blamed voter suppression for her loss.
The consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, which have exacerbated the pain of societal inequality, might also have created an environment in which these NBA players are now more cognizant of the fault lines in the democracy of their country.
They’ve found themselves isolated from the coronavirus in the NBA “bubble” in Florida, but with extra time on their hands, they’re now paying even closer attention to the election.
Speaking with Turner Sports, Oklahoma City’s veteran point guard Chris Paul described detailed conversations that he wouldn’t normally have had: “I went to the pool at our hotel last night and just saw guys talking, you don’t get to do that during the regular season.” He said that this is how they should utilize their position as role models within the community. “These kids watch our games; they wanna buy our shoes. We have to really start to use our influence and make sure they understand the importance of voting and how suppression of the vote is real.”
According to the Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, his job is no longer just about preparing players for games; he told CNN, “We are headfirst into a situation that’s really new for a lot of us, understanding and being an active participant in encouraging our communities to get out and vote. It’s truly important that we do, but – man – it’s a surreal place to be right now.”
Pierce’s involvement illustrates just how united the NBA is on this initiative. Owners and their team facilities, CEOs, players and coaches are all united to help their communities. Peers of Pierce, like the Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich and the Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr regularly call out the President with well-articulated arguments in media briefings or pithy comments on social media. When Trump put the NBA in his crosshairs recently, Kerr highlighted the hypocrisy on Twitter, reminding his 635-thousand followers that in June, Trump claimed to be “an ally to all peaceful protesters.”
LeBron James is basketball’s biggest star and he sometimes barely conceals his disdain when discussing the President. This year he established a campaign organization called “More Than a Vote” and he’s using his social media networks, with a combined reach of more than 118-million followers on Twitter and Instagram, to preach the message. He told Turner Sports, “A lot of people in the Black community don’t want to vote because they don’t believe that their vote counts. We’re just trying to change that narrative. You are wanted. You are needed. And the only way to create change is to be heard.”
Crucially, the league-wide initiative is about more than just giving citizens a welcoming place to vote; NBA teams are competing against each other to see who can register the most people to vote. Koonin told CNN that the winner gets the John Lewis “Good Trouble” Trophy, an accolade named in honor of the local civil rights icon, who died in July.
Whatever happens in November, whoever wins at the ballot box, the real win for the NBA could be that they will have engaged, educated and energized countless American citizens to stand up and make sure that their voices are heard.