Will NBA’s return only distract from fight for racial justice?

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, center, watches from the bench during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns. (Matt York/AP)

Wayne Embry remembers what it was like to be an NBA player during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. In some ways, it was similar to the current fight against racial injustice. In other ways, it was drastically different.

“We were involved,” says Embry, who played 11 years in the league and is now a senior adviser with the Toronto Raptors. “Not as openly as the players are today, because of insecurities with our jobs.”

Back then, players were not on guaranteed contracts and owners were worried about low attendance, he says. This fostered a scenario where many Black players were worried about potential backlash if ownership found out about their involvement with protests.

That didn’t stop some, though. Embry’s Boston Celtics teammate Bill Russell attended the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a Dream” speech, and Embry himself showed up to support a Cincinnati community organization as it planned a protest.

“We all reached the conclusion that enough is enough and whatever happens, happens,” says Embry, who became the NBA’s first Black general manager in 1972 with the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Enough is enough” is a sentiment all too familiar to the present day’s ongoing social-justice movement, which was spurred to a new level of urgency and action by the death of George Floyd in police custody last month in Minneapolis. It’s the reason behind global protests and a far-reaching reckoning that has impacted the sports world.

That was glaringly evident this past week in the NBA, which has seen its impending return questioned by players. On a recent Zoom call with players, Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving called for them to sit out the season’s resumption due to the current unrest. In the days that followed, several players, including Dwight Howard and Lou Williams, backed Irving, while those in some corners of the sporting landscape labelled him an instigator.

Television personality Steven A. Smith implied that Irving was using this as an excuse to avoid going back to work, while retired player Kendrick Perkins chided his former teammate for causing “unnecessary drama.”

The situation has brought forward a meaningful debate: Will the NBA’s return take the focus off the push against systemic racism? Or would it in fact help move the conversation forward by giving Black athletes a forum as the sporting world turns its attention to Orlando, where the games will be played?

For some, though, there’s not much to deliberate over.

“If your argument is that the NBA season can actually cast light into some of the social problems we’re currently wrestling with, what more light do they need cast on them when cities are on fire [in America]?” says Andray Domise, a contributing editor at Maclean’s and a board member of the Canadian Association of Black Journalists. “The light of the flame is casting the light on the problem, not a bunch of millionaires playing a game.”

Domise uses the phrase “bread and circuses” — the thought that entertainment and insubstantial political policies can pacify the masses — to describe what’s going on. An NBA season could shift people’s attention away from striving for change, and because of that, he believes the season shouldn’t be completed.

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Instead of returning to the court, Domise believes NBA players should offer support by donating money and supplies, like personal protective equipment. They could also show up to protests and use social media to amplify voices.

As for the argument that players could make a significant impact in Orlando during pre- and post-game media interviews, Domise does not view that as effective.

“The idea that a bunch of basketball players saying things in front of cameras is going to help is ridiculous,” he says. “Being Black is not sufficient to understand revolutionary politics. Your Blackness is not enough. What happens oftentimes is that because a person is Black, and has something smart to say, [it’s thought] they have the same objectives as people who are currently marching and people who are engaged in uprising, and that’s not true.

LeBron James has a completely different class interest than they do,” Domise adds. “Now, he might be very benevolent about how he uses his money — he gives a lot of money to communities, he built a school, he does work in the community. I don’t want to take anything away from that. But it doesn’t have to be his voice because he doesn’t have the same interest as everybody else.”

Desmond Cole, a Toronto-based journalist and author of the bestselling book The Skin We’re In, agrees with the notion that there are voices better suited than NBA players to speak about what’s going on.

“That’s not their responsibility and, also, this is not an insult to them, but there are people who have spent their lives in communities fighting for these issues every day,” Cole says. “It’s annoying that these Black men in professional sports are expected to do something that other people are demonstrating very clearly that they know about. Why not give them the microphone?”

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Cole notes that there are also personal consequences when Black athletes wade into political waters. Colin Kaepernick is still without an NFL job, and Irving has faced tremendous backlash in response to his recent comments. It’s almost a trap of sorts because when Black athletes speak about social issues like this, they open themselves up to criticism from an entire media cycle that fills its time with obsessing and nitpicking their individual opinions and the manner in which they deliver them.

There’s also a disparity in how the opinions of Black players and white players are perceived. Cole points to the example of MLB superstar Mike Trout, who voiced his concerns earlier this year about a “bubble city” for the league and was not met with much, if any, public criticism.

“I obviously want to play as fast as we can,” Trout said. “But being quarantined in a city, I was reading for — if we play — a couple of months, it would be difficult for some guys. What are you going to do with family members? My wife is pregnant. What am I going to do when she goes into labour — am I going to have to quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Obviously, I can’t miss the birth of our first child. There are a lot of red flags, there are a lot of questions.”

Says Cole: “I think it’s really important to note that a white baseball superstar like Mike Trout will get a lot more credibility and clout for saying something like that than someone like Kyrie Irving.”

That inequality was far more blatant during Embry’s playing days, when many Black players had to conceal their efforts to contribute to social movements.

For his part, the Raptors executive is in favour of the league resuming, citing the example it would set.

“I’ve always thought sports was a model for how greater society should be, and that is people coming together from diverse backgrounds and cultures,” says Embry. “From ownership right on down thorough the players, that you come together for a common cause and that’s to win a championship.”

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