Basketball’s ongoing fight for social justice
The NBA’s and WNBA’s actions against racial inequality didn’t start with this year’s protests, and they won’t end there.
As the NBA prepares to resume the 2019–20 season next week, it does so in a far different world than when it shut down on March 11. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked nationwide protest and outrage, shining new light on racial inequality and injustice.
The NBA and NBPA have set a goal for the season restart to take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice — including putting the phrase "Black Lives Matter" on the court and social justice messaging on players’ jerseys.
While the fight is more visible now, this generation of NBA and WNBA players has been standing up and speaking out for years, as they have been directly and indirectly affected by these issues.
Not every fight has been public. Not every action has sparked a movement. But all of them have made an impact. These are just some of the many moments, big and small, that over the past decade have led to where we stand today, as professional basketball players fight for a better future.
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
Clippers stage protest against Donald Sterling
Players across league wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts
When Derrick Rose took the floor for the Chicago Bulls’ game against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 6, 2014, he eschewed his traditional warm-up shirt for a black T-shirt with three words written in bold, white letters:
“I Can’t Breathe”
Those were the last words of Eric Garner, who died in July 2014 after a New York City police officer placed him in a choke hold. One week before Rose’s on-court statement, a grand jury had declined to bring charges against the officer.
“When I put it on and walked out there, I knew that it was gonna be something, because all my teammates, they were just shook,” Rose wrote in his 2019 autobiography. “It wasn’t about me, but you could tell they were thinking something different. Would people be upset? Because I wasn’t someone who talked much, wasn’t someone always speaking up, I think that made it louder. But that’s what I mean. Stuff like that. Something simple. Something I cared about. And it’s helping others. That’s how I wanted to express it.”
In that moment, the soft-spoken Rose sparked a movement. In the days that followed, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Kobe Bryant were among the players who donned “I Can’t Breathe” shirts.
Six years later, those words resonated again after the killing of George Floyd, who said “I can’t breathe” as a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for approximately eight minutes.
“I’m from that same kind of neighborhood where that man got killed,” Rose wrote of Garner in 2019. “That looks like every storefront in my neighborhood. I easily could have seen that, been there. And what could I have done with the police? Like, ‘Whoa, whoa, you got him in a chokehold! You about to kill him.’” — ERIC WOODYARD
New York police restrain and injure Thabo Sefolosha
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
LeBron seeks to address root causes of gun violence
Like seriously man!!!! A baby shot in the chest in Cleveland. It's been out of control but it's really OOC. Ya'll need to chill the F out.— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 1, 2015
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
NBA players open ESPYS with speech against violence
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
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
Milwaukee police tase Sterling Brown
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
Jazz ban fan who directed alleged racist taunt at Westbrook
Nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd
NBA players coalition calls for more Black coaches, execs
WNBA players, union call for removal of Kelly Loeffler
Dear @SenatorLoeffler ....— Renee Montgomery (@itsreneem_) July 7, 2020
I’m pretty sad to see that my team ownership is not supportive of the movement & all that it stands for. I was already sitting out this season & this is an example of why. I would love to have a conversation with you about the matter if you’re down?
NBA season restarts in Florida
The words and images that accompany the NBA back to work are curiously discomforting: Joel Embiid arriving for his flight to Orlando, Florida, dressed in full personal protective equipment, a helmet standing between him resembling a Chernobyl crewman. Patrick Beverley tweeting that if LeBron James says the league is going to resume, the players are playing. Adam Silver ready to start but seemingly on alert for an immediate shutdown.
When the NBA suspended play in March, the first major message was sent to America that COVID-19 was devastatingly serious. The other sports followed. By being decisive, the NBA chose the caution of safety over being callous for profit. It was the last time sports did the country a service.
The country has only seen its challenges grow more complicated. So has the league. The summer weather did not slow the virus, and the national reckoning on race and policing, combined with players being asked to risk their health or lose millions, has many wondering whether they don’t have enough say in their futures.
All the eyes watch. The NBA is the sport that enjoys the most partnership with its players, but Minneapolis and COVID-19 will test that bond. The NBA has no more information that it is safe to play now than it had in March, yet the show goes on; its first misstep during the pandemic. Players arriving in hazmat suits are as much a message as putting social justice movements on their jerseys.
Through the uncertainty, players have expressed a type of restlessness, such as the number of players who may opt out of the game’s resumption, or when Kyrie Irving suggested forming a player-owned rival league -- a breakaway-republic attitude of that as institutions reimagine America and themselves suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched. This time of reckoning may also provide the seeds of revolution. — HOWARD BRYANT
Photography from AP Photo, Getty Images, USA Today Sports.