“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to view last week’s edition.
The NBA players’ protest was catalyzed by the senseless shooting of Jacob Blake, but it was also a storm a long time brewing. This was a breaking point after years and countless incidents of police violence and injustice. Athlete frustration is at a level we’ve never seen before, and the raw emotional response is unprecedented. When has a player ever publicly said that they shouldn’t be playing basketball –– their job, lifelong dream and sport that gave them everything –– like George Hill did?
But the sports world went back to normal in a few days. The domino effect that began with the Milwaukee Bucks prompted the rest of the NBA, as well as myriad other sports leagues and athletes, to take an action reversed course literally overnight. By the time play resumed, the NBA community was promptly blessed with captivating performances by Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, and the discussion about social justice was all but forgotten –– save for a few cursory ad spots and show segments that felt forced.
Now the NBA is more than a week removed from the stoppage, and it’s fully in the rearview. The league doubled down on its efforts to engage in performative, symbolic activism. Owners were pressured by players to use their money and status for meaningful change, but only a handshake promise to commit to vague causes came out of it. The only shining achievement of progress in those 24 hours was a commitment to turn NBA arenas into voting sites for the upcoming election. Promoting civic engagement is obviously important, but considering how close the players were to turning a new page in our history, it’s a meager outcome.
Minds were not changed. Wallets were not touched. The league and owners were willing to cooperate with players, but not willing to be uncomfortable. This is the same playbook that the NBA (and all large corporations) has been sticking to on the activism front. The playbook that brought us phrases and slogans on the back of players’ jerseys and Black Lives Matter painted on the court.
There are many executives working for the league and high-ranking members of teams that can reach politicians at any time. Their financial power and societal gravitas is immeasurable. As Reagan articulated last week, it would only take a few calls and a small dent in their pockets to bring about major change. But that will never happen: these majority white owners and executives have no incentive to be charitable. Instead, it’s easier and more rewarding to project the trappings of activism and good faith, while cowering away from substantive work.
So for players like George Hill and Jaylen Brown, whose reactions to the Jacob Blake shootings were so visceral, they returned to play knowing things remained unchanged.
It would be wrong to say that the players are powerless in this situation. The NBA, more than any other professional American sports league, relies on the success of its players, and especially its superstars. They are revered, idolized and worshipped, and are also the reason why the NBA has such a large audience. Without them on the court, the league is nothing. Revenue streams dry up. TV deals and sponsor partnerships worth billions of dollars are suddenly making no returns. Player salaries take a hit, but more importantly, the league and ownership that’s accustomed to consistent income are faced with the prospect of nothing. In those 24 hours, the players probably instilled a fear into the NBA’s elite class that it’s never experienced before.
Recall back to June, before the NBA reconvened in the bubble. Kyrie Irving made waves by encouraging players to opt out of playing, reasoning that attention would be diverted away from social justice. A fury of negative social media reaction, along with clearly slanted news pieces like this Adrian Wojnarowski one that labeled Irving a “disruptor,” showed there were factions within the player ranks. Ultimately, Kyrie’s message lost out against those advocating to play.
When the Bucks announced their strike, a flurry of “Kyrie was right” sentiments flowed in. His messaging was completely on point. But more important than the hindsight game, the players were given another opportunity to make the decision they were presented with in June. The outcome was the same. The process was the same. Yet again, there were factions and hostilities, finger-pointing and general disagreements.
It’s extremely unfair to ask the players to bear this burden on their shoulders, on top of playing world-class basketball and the challenges that come with it. But at the same time, this is what they have asked for. If “More Than An Athlete” is going to be more than a slogan and “player empowerment” more than just a phrase, the players will have to collectively understand and use their immense power and leverage.
“Trading Baskets” runs every Friday.