March 23

Heat players pose in hoodies for Trayvon Martin

As a teen, LeBron James prided himself on being a student of sports. But as he grew older, he became a student of athletes. It’s the subtle distinction between studying Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1971 NBA title win and understanding what the athletes were fighting for beyond basketball.

That evolution became clear on March 23, 2012, when James, Dwyane Wade and their Miami Heat teammates posed with hoodies on for a photo with the hashtag #WeAreTrayvonMartin, in memory of a Florida teen who'd been killed a month earlier. The shooter, George Zimmerman, had not been arrested as of that time. The Heat's moment of group activism, spurred by actress Gabrielle Union -- Wade’s girlfriend at the time and now his wife -- was the beginning of James’ mission toward greater awareness and action.

“Certain athletes didn’t speak upon things and that’s OK. To each his own,” James said in 2017. “If this photo and this moment was the rekindle of the fire for athletes to speak on things, then I guess we did our job.”

James had dabbled in politics and social action before then, but it was measured. But since the campaign to get justice for Martin, James has continued to expand his social and political involvement, most recently establishing More Than a Vote in June 2020, aimed at protecting African American voting rights. James’ commitment has not only reframed his career, but also made a difference in numerous lives.

“I get an opportunity to be the inspiration around what all of these kids are looking up to. And for me to just sit back and not say s--- when a lot of my peers didn't say s---, it didn't feel right,” James said during the 2018 All-Star Weekend. “I mean too much to society. I mean too much to the youth. I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don't have a way out and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they're in.” — BRIAN WINDHORST

April 27

Clippers stage protest against Donald Sterling

After an audio tape surfaced of team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks to his girlfriend, LA Clippers players, including Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, considered a boycott before deciding to stage a silent protest before Game 4 of their playoff series against the Warriors. They dropped their warm-up jackets at center court and wore their shooting shirts inside out. Two days later, the NBA banned Sterling for life.

April 8

New York police restrain and injure Thabo Sefolosha

Thabo Sefolosha, then with the Atlanta Hawks, suffered season-ending injuries at the hands of the NYPD. He sued and received $4 million in a settlement, a substantial portion of which he donated to charity. “We are all aware that there are still too many cases of police brutality today,” he said. “So many of these cases go unnoticed or unreported; so many victims do not have the means to fight for justice as I could. It's unfair.”

April 30

Carmelo Anthony leads protest march in Baltimore

We need to protect our city, not destroy it,” Carmelo Anthony wrote in an impassioned post on Instagram on April 27, 2015, as his hometown of Baltimore rioted following the funeral for Freddie Gray, a Black man who died from spinal cord and other injuries suffered while in police custody.

Anthony’s message was powerful, but he wanted to do more. Three days later, he led a march from East Baltimore to West Baltimore, where he’d grown up in a small townhouse across from a public housing development known as the “Murder Homes.”

“I wanted to feel that,” Anthony told ESPN in 2016. “I wanted to feel that pain. I wanted to feel that tension.”

Two months later, Anthony again vowed to do more, challenging his fellow athletes to use their platforms and power to help “steer our anger in the right direction.”

It was a side of Anthony the public had not seen before. But social activism runs in his family. His father, Carmelo Iriarte, was a member of the Young Lords, a social justice group in the 1960s and ’70s in New York City known for distributing hospital equipment to the needy, providing breakfasts to children and clearing and -- in some cases, burning -- garbage in some neighborhoods.

Anthony says the Freddie Gray incident was his call to action: “The one that tipped me off. It was like something just exploded.”

In 2016, Anthony held a town hall with law enforcement officials in Los Angeles, hoping to find ways of building trust between police and the community.

Shortly thereafter he got a call from NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who asked for advice on what to do next after he began sitting during the national anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

“Now is the hard part,” Anthony told Kaepernick. “Because you have to keep it going.” — RAMONA SHELBURNE

Oct. 1

LeBron seeks to address root causes of gun violence

A day after speaking out following the drive-by shooting of 5-month-old Aavielle Wakefield in Cleveland, James used his media availability to explain that his foundation is focused on helping the communities in Northeast Ohio and decreasing the percentage of at-risk children, which could suppress violence in the area.

July 9

Minnesota Lynx players wear Black Lives Matter shirts

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve had something to say. It was July 7, 2016. The previous night, Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School, had been shot and killed by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota -- a suburb of Minneapolis. The night before that, Alton Sterling had been killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the same neighborhood where Lynx guard Seimone Augustus had grown up.

As the Lynx headed into shootaround before a game against the Connecticut Sun, Reeve pulled aside her four captains: Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Maya Moore. She asked a simple question. “Let’s use our voices,” Reeve said. “What do we want to do?”

Two days later, the Lynx made their statement. Before a game against the Dallas Wings, the entire squad wore black shirts with “Change Starts With Us — Justice & Accountability” inscribed on the front. On the back were the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, along with the Dallas police shield to honor the victims of a July 7, 2016, attack on the Dallas Police Department. Bold, white lettering of “Black Lives Matter” rested underneath the names and shield. In response, four police officers acting as security for the game walked off the job.

What arose from that on-court display became a launching pad for racial-justice activism in the WNBA. Four years later, multiple players are sitting out the 2020 season to focus on activism and racial justice. Among them are the Mystics’ Natasha Cloud, the Dream’s Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, and Moore, who will be sitting out a second season after fighting for the exoneration of Jonathan Irons, who was freed July 1 after 22 years behind bars. — KATIE BARNES

July 13

NBA players open ESPYS with speech against violence

Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James used the opening moments of the 2016 ESPYS as a call to promote social change. “Generations ago, legends like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe and countless others, they set a model for what athletes should stand for,” Paul said. “So we choose to follow in their footsteps.”

Sept. 21

Indiana Fever kneel during national anthem

Tamika Catchings — a WNBA champion and MVP, four-time Olympic gold medalist, 10-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer — was set to take the court for the Indiana Fever for the final time. But that would not be the story on this night.

As "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being performed at half court, every one of the 12 Fever players locked arms and dropped to a knee, the first time a professional team did so in unison.

The team’s choice — which was a surprise even to then-coach Stephanie White — came at a time when kneeling during the anthem was still seen by many Americans as a controversial, divisive act. Just weeks earlier, Colin Kaepernick’s initial decision to sit and then kneel as a way to peacefully protest racial injustice in America had quickly become a hot-button issue. Only two months before that, the WNBA fined teams and players (Indiana included) for wearing shirts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement during pregame warm-ups — though the league later rescinded the fines.

Fever players sought to articulate the nuance behind their protests. Guard Marissa Coleman, for instance, said she had family that had served in the military, and a father who’d served as a police officer. But “the bigger disrespect to this country and those who fight for it is staying silent on these issues that plague African Americans and people of color.”

Almost four years later, the nation has seen a shift in attitude regarding peaceful protests during the anthem, with the majority of Americans saying they support them. Kaepernick endured the harshest criticism before the act was more widely accepted. But the Fever’s decision to kneel as a team — and to do so in the midst of the national firestorm about the issue — deserves credit too. — CHRIS HERRING

Sept. 23

LeBron takes on president after criticism of Kaepernick, Warriors

After multiple Warriors said they wouldn't want to attend a championship celebration at the White House following President Donald Trump's suggestion that NFL players should be fired for kneeling during the national anthem, Trump preemptively withdrew Golden State's invite. James then backed the team that had defeated him in the Finals and saluted Kaepernick, saying he'd sign the quarterback if he owned an NFL team. "He's now using sports as the platform to try to divide us," LeBron said of the president. "We all know how much sports brings us together. ... It's not something I can be quiet about.''

Sept. 30

Lakers lock arms during anthem at preseason game

As "The Star-Spangled Banner" began to play, Los Angeles Lakers players and coaches hooked arms. On the opposite side of the court, the Minnesota Timberwolves did the same. Both teams stood -- elbows locked -- for the entirety of the anthem.

The show of unity came six days after dozens of NFL players kneeled for the anthem in protest of President Trump’s comments that players who do so should be fired. But there would be no kneeling in the NBA.

The night before the Lakers-Wolves game, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum sent a memo to teams, reminding them of the NBA’s anthem policy, which had been on the books since 1981: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line.”

Fifteen years after that rule was adopted, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf declined to stand during the anthem, citing religious and personal beliefs. After serving a one-game suspension, he came to an agreement with the league: He would stand, but cup his hands over his face in prayer while the song played.

Still, he was traded by the Nuggets, his playing time waned, and he lost his starting spot. By 1998, at 29 years old, he was out of the league. (He returned two years later for a 41-game stint with Vancouver.) Abdul-Rauf has said that was a direct result of the stance he took.

As the NBA restarts its season in empty arenas at Walt Disney World, the anthem will still be played. As of now, the standing mandate is still in effect. But the national climate is far different from 1996 or 2017.

When asked whether players would be allowed to kneel during the anthem, commissioner Adam Silver said last month that he wasn’t “comfortable” with the word “allowed,” but added, “I also understand the role of protest, and I think that we’ll deal with that situation when it presents itself.” — MALIKA ANDREWS

Jan. 26

Milwaukee police tase Sterling Brown

When Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown became the victim of police brutality in 2018, it once again shined a light on a widespread issue. “It shouldn’t require an incident involving a professional athlete to draw attention to the fact that vulnerable people in our communities have experienced similar, and even worse, treatment,” the Bucks said in a statement at the time.

Feb. 17

LeBron tells critics players won’t be silenced

We will definitely not shut up and dribble. I will definitely not do that.”

LeBron James in response to Fox News host Laura Ingraham telling him and other politically active NBA players to “shut up and dribble.”

Speak My Peace

By Doug Glanville

I will speak nowThe floor is mineYesterday you tried to silence meToday you hear without listeningTomorrow we will be seen and heardYou were not just tryingTo diminish a starYou were speaking to a peopleHiding in code behind the advantageOf a supreme mythWe know what you meantBy ungrammatical as if you embraced the eloquent words of a King when he spoke about our country’s original sinWe were already shut up when we arrivedShut up in shipsShut up by whipsShut up by lawShut up by your flawThat tunes out our shared humanity400 years and still believing In a nation that can be justThe ultimate patriotsThat care enough to place a mirrorIn front of its faceYet we still believe in your right to have a voiceWhich does not give you a right to silence mineBy hateQueen Maya freed an unjustly imprisoned manWithout dribbling a basketballSo no, we will not just dribbleNot this timeNot againForever has arrived at our shoresNo peace will be heldAnymore

March 12

Jazz ban fan who directed alleged racist taunt at Westbrook

Verbal abuse of players reached a breaking point in 2019, when the Utah Jazz banned a fan for life after his comments toward Russell Westbrook. “Sometimes it almost feels like a zoo,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert told ESPN. “People pay money to watch us and feel like they can touch us or do whatever they want. Because we make millions, we're just expected to shut up and take it.”

May 29

Nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd

After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, multiple players across the league led and participated in nationwide protests against police brutality, including Bradley Beal (above), Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter.

June 16

NBA players coalition calls for more Black coaches, execs

Since 2012, the NBA has received at least an A grade for its racial hiring practices, according to a report by UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports [PDF]. But a players coalition led by Avery Bradley and Kyrie Irving pushed for the league to do more. Data from the 2019 report shows that while the NBA is ahead of other men’s leagues, Black professionals in leadership roles remain underrepresented relative to the pool of players.

Black White
Players 74.8% 18.1%
Majority owners 2.9% 91.4%
Vice presidents 14.8% 76.1%
General managers 21.7% 73.9%
Head coaches 26.7% 66.7%
July 7

WNBA players, union call for removal of Kelly Loeffler

After Atlanta Dream co-owner and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler expressed her opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and the league putting “Black Lives Matter” on its jerseys, multiple players — including Atlanta point guard Renee Montgomery — spoke out, with some calling for Loeffler's removal from the team and the league. A week later, the WNBA said Loeffler would not be forced to sell.