NBA Players Should Have Boycotted
Sports bring us together, but they don't make us equal.
NBA players have made it a point to state that they’re “more than athletes.” But they’ve opted to spend this dire moment as little more than basketball players. The NBA season is resuming on July 31st. Players will be sequestered in Orlando from July through October, living alone in a Disney World “bubble” that they’re discouraged from leaving because of coronavirus concerns.
On Wednesday night, former NBA player Stephen Jackson took to Instagram to air his belief that basketball fans and analysts are already diverting attention away from police brutality on the verge of the league’s return. “While everybody sittin’ back, gettin’ comfortable…”talkin’ about the (NBA) season, I don’t hear nobody sayin’ Breonna Taylor (or) George Floyd,” he bemoaned.
“‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court,” he sarcastically asserted, before noting that “no” NBA Owners have come out and condemned systemic inequality. Floyd was Jackson’s longtime friend, and he went to Minnesota to protest in his Texan “twin’s” memory. He‘s convinced that “they don’t wanna talk to” all “the people they need to talk to, to give them the plan...on how we can get equality.”
‘They” likely refers to public officials who are praying that painting #Black Lives Matter on streets will quell the fury of protesters. But “the plan” is revolution. There’s one group who could have forced everyone to reckon with the necessity of revolution: the NBA players who should have forgone the season as a protest against systemic inequality.
The league has said that players will be allowed to put “social justice statements” on the back of their jerseys during play. But none of their league-approved sloganeering will mean more than the statement they could have made by divesting billions from the NBA in the name of Black liberation.
Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradly spoke up for players who didn’t want to return, who felt stifled by the influential voices of NBA elder-statesmen like LeBron James and Chris Paul. Irving and Bradley collectively issued a statement to ESPN, which in part said the following:
We are truly at an inflection point in history where as a collective community, we can band together—UNIFY—and move as one. We need all our people with us and we will stand together in solidarity.
"As an oppressed community we are going on 500-plus years of being systemically targeted, used for our IP/Talent, and also still being killed by the very people that are supposed to 'protect and serve' us.
Irving claimed on a June conference call with the league that he was ready to “give up everything” for social reform. But too few of his powerful peers agreed, and players opted to approve the Orlando bubble. Now the predominantly Black workforce is tasked to entertain the world during a global pandemic and uprising — another example of Black laborers risking their peace of mind and wellbeing to sustain capitalism.
Before the Floyd protests began, players were already dealing with the coronavirus. The CDC reports that the virus is killing “non-Hispanic Black people” at a rate five times higher than that of “non-Hispanic white people.” Dozens of players, including all-stars like Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert, have tested positive for the coronavirus — though none have reported severe symptoms. Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl Anthony-Towns, whose team won’t be in the bubble, lost his mother to coronavirus. 25 players have tested positive for the virus since the league began testing two weeks ago.
Gobert, who had the dubious honor of being the first player to test positive, has said that he’s still experiencing symptoms. Scientists are learning about this virus as the days go along. Who knows how long the antibodies linger, or what the longterm effects of the respiratory disease will be. There are numerous players, such as James Harden and Javale McGee, with pre-existing conditions like asthma that put them at increased risk for severe coronavirus symptoms. Will contracting the virus affect a player’s long-term viability — or lifespan? No one knows.
But unfortunately, NBA players are the million-dollar guinea pigs. Their family won’t be able to enter the Disney complex until the end of the first round of the playoffs, which could be as late as August 30th. Some players, such as Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza, have opted to stay out of the bubble. But the players who opted in, many of whom are fathers, are being asked to sequester from an unpredictable world. Who knows when the dreaded “second wave” of coronavirus will hit, or what white nationalists will decide to do next, or what draconian requirements governments might incur upon cities as demonstrations continue? NBA players may not experience virus symptoms, but what about older essential personnel like coaches, referees, and other staff?
The players will be well-paid, but they’re being isolated from their families and forced to reckon with a deadly virus for owners who will be at home. Players from the 22 bubble-eligible teams won’t be paid the remainder of their 2020 salary if they aren’t “excused” from participating by the league. By definition, the bubble is plantation-adjace. It’s not mandatory, but people who voluntarily opt-out aren’t getting paid. Its existence is an audacious statement on how much the league is willing to risk for a dollar.
San Antonio Spurs player Demar Derozan was vocal about his displeasure with the bubble, calling the NBA’s rules “frustrating and overwhelming.” He incredulously asked ESPN’s Royce Young, “guys can't [play doubles ping-pong], but we can do this and battle over each other? That part just don't make no sense to me.” He added that the occasion “will be something for every single player when it comes to mental health."
Returning in that environment isn’t worth it, especially when refusing to play would have meant so much more. The popular sentiment is that LeBron has the most to gain by playing and possibly winning a fourth NBA title (before the “window” of his athletic prime closes), but he would have gained even more by boycotting and showing solidarity with Black America. If he had sat out, and forced the league to cancel its reprisal, he’d no longer be compared to Jordan or Kobe — he’d be next to Kaepernick and Ali. He has already done more than Jordan with his I Promise school and More Than A Vote voting rights group. But if legacy is the driving factor of his decisions, pushing past reform and advocating for radical measures would have cemented him as a social justice icon.
Maya Moore, one of the WNBA’s best players, took a year out of her athletic peak to help overturn the burglary and assault with a weapon conviction of wrongfully convicted Jonathan Irons. He was released yesterday after serving 22 years of a 50-year sentence. At 31, it’s conceivable that Moore may not come back to the WNBA as the same player she was at her peak — but that possibility didn’t matter to her as much as her cause.
During trial, the then-16-year old Irons’ prosecutor told the all-white jury “don’t be soft on him because he is young..he is as dangerous as somebody five times that age.” That’s the same dehumanizing pathology that forms the fiber of America’s carceral state, and resulted in the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and too many others.
By advocating for Irons, Moore contributed to the fight against the system. And NBA players could have done the same thing by simply staying home. Boycotting this season would have made people clamoring for a sense of “normalcy” realize that we’re never going back. The lack of a pastime would have forced everyone to focus not on placatory reforms, but a new normal without white supremacy. It would have forced white fans to reckon with the construct of whiteness, and how it entwines with capitalism to fuel systemic inequality. NBA owners and partners would have been forced to recognize their complicity in oppression as cogs of consumerism. They recently changed their names from “owners” to “governors” out of concern for the racial overtones of the term “owner.” Was that merely a performative change? What about the racial overtones of sending a predominantly Black league into a bubble?
The NBA is the most entertaining sports league in the world, but there are currently more pressing social issues than basketball’s battle of LA. Sports bring us together, but they don’t make us equal.
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