by Christopher Castro
The National Basketball Association brought in nearly 8.7 trillion dollars (292 billion per team) in revenue in 2018-2019, according to Forbes. The NBA gives players and NBA affiliates a platform that is on a worldwide scale. The league’s games reach 215 countries around the globe. This creates a sphere of influence that gives the NBA a unique opportunity for messages to be spread to one of the biggest audiences available. In an ever changing political and social climate, players and coaches figuring out how to support what they believe in has become an essential part of their jobs. This has made the NBA players’ voices more powerful and important than ever before.
Players speaking for social justice isn’t anything new. Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion for the Boston Celtics, initiated a boycott of an NBA game in 1961 when he and his black teammates were not served at a hotel cafe because of their skin color. Russell said at the time “that we are accepted as entertainers, but that we are not accepted as people in some places”(Washington Post, 2020). This sent a minor but noticeable shock wave. This was in America in the early 1960s, before MLK’s march on Washington and not long after 6-year-old Ruby Bridges was a trailblazer against segregation in schools. Players had attempted to be vocal about civil liberties before and have dealt with lots of backlash. Alongside Bill Russell’s boycott, a rookie on the opposing Atlanta Hawks, Cleo Hill, decided to join in and paid the price. He was cut from the team and never played in the NBA again. He made a sacrifice to stand up against the unfair segregation of African Americans in the 1960s that cost him his career as a professional basketball player.
Not long after, the 1964 NBA all-star game was set to be the first televised NBA game ever. At this point, players were barely compensated and forced to stay on the same team their entire careers. Many had to “work another job during the summer to make ends meet” (CBS, 2020). This televised event had the entire success of the league riding on it. Seeing a prime opportunity to strike, many of the all-stars, including NBA legend Jerry West, refused to play if their player union and demands weren’t taken seriously. The owners, now backed into a corner, recognized the union and gave into the player’s request; including a player pension, a physical trainer for every team, and player-friendly scheduling. When these professional athletes want to send a message, they know that attacking the owners’ income is the best way to get their attention.
Many of these same issues still haven’t changed in almost 60 years. In August of 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks held a protest after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man who was shot 7 times in the back. The Bucks refused to play a playoff game at a time when the NBA needed the revenue more than ever–after the corona epidemic forced the league to come to a close. The other teams scheduled to play quickly canceled their games as well in solidarity, ending up with a total of six teams. Tens of millions of dollars were lost during the boycott, which only lasted one game. The National Basketball Players Association, a union led by current NBA players, demanded that action be taken or else they would elect to cancel the rest of the playoffs. Once again, the NBA owners were put between a rock and a hard place. They had to react. Quickly, meetings were scheduled with the players union to make some kind of compromise. The players were able to have their grievances voiced and have the situation handled immediately. Diplomacy and trying to curate a message that is well-constructed would take days of communication between the owners of the franchises and the players. At times it’s better to resort to direct action.
Players and coaches have been sure to speak out to the media about today’s climate and how it’s affecting them. Docs Rivers, the head coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, gave a powerful response to an interviewer’s question after a game. He spoke of how “[African American’s] keep loving this country, but this country [is] not loving us back.” His entire response to the Jacob Blake shooting was eye-opening, raw, and full of the emotional composure of a man who has been there and done that. This makes these messages so important, by shedding light on what’s happening in the world and how it impacts people, even if you’re not the one being affected. Jamal Murray made a similar statement. After winning a crucial game in a series versus the Utah Jazz, Murray spoke on what it meant to him to win during these times and the life he felt his shoes gave him during the game. On his shoes, he had portraits of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two victims of police brutality. He said, “[I] [used][those] shoes as a symbol to me to keep fighting.” Murray continued and pushed that “it’s not just in America, it happens everywhere.” Both of these men are just a few of the coaches and players that are using their influence to show that it’s bigger than just basketball.
What does this mean for the future of the NBA regarding a player’s voice? Well, hopefully, this will lead to more outspokenness. There was a long period of time between the fight for civil rights in the 1960s until just a few years ago where being ‘woke’ wasn’t a trend. It could cost your livelihood, your freedom, and even your life. Just because at this moment the world seems to be on the right side doesn’t mean things won’t regress. There’s no guarantee that the common consensus opinion will be the right one, since it hardly ever is. That is when not just NBA players, but all of us, will have to keep up the fight for civil liberties and the fair treatment of all people. All lives can’t matter until black lives, unequivocally, do.