NBA Players Must Decide if Their Voices Are Better Heard Outside the Bubble

Steve Lichtenstein
August 27, 2020 - 12:33 pm

In a sign of the unprecedented times in which we live, employees walked off their jobs on Wednesday – with the full support of those who sign their paychecks.

The fight for social justice sometimes makes for strange bedfellows. The NBA, through its partnership with its Players Association, has become one of the nation’s leaders in advocating for social justice causes, with the Black Lives Matter movement all too personal for its stakeholders.

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The Milwaukee Bucks, who play about 40 miles from Kenosha – the site of the latest horrific police shooting of Jacob Blake – and have their own history of players being victimized by excessive police force, opened the floodgates when they refused to take the court for Game 5 of their playoff series versus the Magic. Soon after, the remaining two NBA playoff games slated for Wednesday night were postponed and other leagues (the WNBA, MLS, and some MLB games) followed suit. Only the NHL went about its business entirely uninterrupted.  

One by one, NBA teams sent out statements backing their players 100 percent, but the question now is, “now what?”

Reports of a players’ meeting on Wednesday night said that the Lakers and the Clippers, two of the leading contenders for the NBA title, voted informally to call it all off. Other teams were still debating, with players and owners scheduled to convene separately on Thursday.  

NBA players have had to make extraordinary sacrifices just to agree to finish a season originally halted in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been quarantined at their hotel campus at Walt Disney World, and are going on nearly two months without seeing their families and friends.

Personal financial rewards certainly weighed heavily on their decision to play. The league needed the TV revenues from the resumption to avoid the potential calamity of enacting the force majeure clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and Nets guard Garrett Temple said that he would have a hard time telling players to walk away from the opportunity to “create a little bit of generational wealth.”

If you recall, several other players, led by Nets star and players union Executive Vice President, Kyrie Irving, voiced concerns in advance about players participating in a bubble in the wake of the police shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They worried that the games would be a distraction from issues more deserving of attention, like the ongoing protests for equality under the law.

Irving, whose shoulder injury prevented him from joining his teammates in the bubble, seems prescient now, but were the games “distractions?” If anything, the media has provided daily opportunities for league members to express themselves to a diverse audience. So many, from youngsters like Celtics forward Jaylen Brown and Raptors guard Fred VanVleet to old coaches like the Clippers’ Doc Rivers and the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, have done so with heartfelt eloquence – and, while Irving himself has been less vocal since then, he has been quite active in supporting communities through charitable acts.

That the players did agree to play is what in fact made their strike a huge national news story. That action allowed them access to Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General on Wednesday.   

As I wrote back in June when I defended Irving’s comments, it seemed that players might feel like they needed to lend their feet to the cause, not just their voices. If individual players now realize that they can do more for the movement if they went home, no one should begrudge them for exercising their freedom to take that route. Brown, though, reportedly told players in the meeting that if they left the bubble, it better be because they intended to take to “the trenches” and not because they were lonely.

Brown is correct. NBA games, as silly as they may seem in the grand scheme of health, economic, and racial crises, are providing players a necessary platform that would be harder to replicate on the outside.

Just because injustice has continued amidst the entertainment doesn’t mean that NBA cries for equality haven’t been heard. Unfortunately, social change takes time.

Maybe the best outcome of Wednesday’s meeting was union President Chris Paul making sure all of his Thunder teammates are registered to vote, so they can do so on November 3. Lakers star LeBron James previously began advocating for More Than A Vote, funding the organization to help recruit poll workers and lobby sports teams to transform their venues into polling places.   

This is a shining example of how the NBA continues to spearhead change. They can do it best when they remain in the public eye.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter: @SteveLichtenst1

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