The NBA and WNBA may be back, but basketball will take a backseat to social justice issues for some players


Prior to the national anthem being played for the WNBA season opener in Bradenton, Florida, on July 25, players from the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty walked off the court and went back to their respective locker rooms. When they returned to the court, 26 seconds of silence were held to honor the age of Breonna Taylor, who was shot eight times after police officers in Louisville issued a no-knock warrant at her apartment in the search of drugs, which were never found. Layshia Clarendon from the Liberty and Breanna Stewart from the Storm then announced that they would be dedicating the 2020 WNBA season to Taylor as well as the Say Her Name campaign, which is dedicated to fighting for justice for Black women.

The NBA will attempt to strike a similar tone when its season resumes on July 30, as players are reportedly preparing to kneel during the national anthem. Since being down in Orlando, NBA players have used their media sessions to advocate for Taylor and social justice on a grander scale. During an interview on “Good Morning America” Wednesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed his support for the players and coaches who choose to take a knee during the anthem.

“The NBA has had a rule in its books that preceded David Stern which was standing for the National Anthem,” Silver said. “Having said that, I respect peaceful protest. I’m not sure what our players will do when they come out tomorrow night and we’ll of course address it at the time, but I also understand these are highly unusual times.”

NBA and WNBA players have always been socially progressive and outspoken compared to other leagues in North America. When LeBron James says “I’m more than an athlete,” or Maya Moore steps away from the WNBA at the peak of her career to help fight for criminal justice reform, it negates the notion that athletes are nothing more than the sport they play. 

“What happens is, in sports in very subtle ways we try to limit that person’s identity, humanity and their sense of self to being an athlete exclusively,” said Dr. Joseph N. Cooper, chair for Sports Leadership & Administration at University of Massachusetts Boston. “So when LeBron James and Maya Moore push back on that, that is a very revolutionary act. It really challenges the stereotype that Black athletes are one dimensional and that they’re multi-faceted, that they have multiple interests and they have the ability to enact change in a multitude of ways.”

In the days, weeks and months that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police on May 25, protests began to pop up in every major city across the United States. It wasn’t just about calling for justice on behalf of Floyd, but also Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, who was gunned down in February while running in his own neighborhood in Georgia, and countless other Black men and women who have lost their lives due to police brutality. This string of events were a turning point for many people across the country who flocked to the streets and marched for justice. 

Alongside the hundreds of thousands of citizens at those protests were Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon, Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and Atlanta Dream guard Renee Montgomery, to name a few.

Athletes speaking up for causes is not new, especially in the NBA and WNBA. However, the number of players who either showed up to a protest, donated or used their platform to speak about racial injustice and police brutality has never been seen before. The atrocities are the same, but the reaction these past few months has been significantly different. Dr. Cooper, who has done extensive research surrounding the history of athlete activism, gender and race in sport, racism and other forms of oppression, attributes the strong reaction to a combination of things. 

“I think the polarizing political climate, social media visibility of unjust crimes at the hands of law enforcement, and the previous courageous acts of activism by Colin Kaepernick and Maya Moore among others have increased pressure of current players to speak up more,” Cooper said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the eight-minute and 46-second video of George Floyd being shared during a pandemic when more people were able to view it and witness the gross injustice that has been plaguing African Americans and Blacks in the U.S. for far too long and now it is just being recorded more and shared more widely.”

Now, months later, after national attention has shifted focus on other pressing issues aside from the Black Lives Matter movement, NBA and WNBA players are trying to ensure that the energy toward that remains the same.

“I think basketball is secondary, it’s our job, obviously we have a responsibility to fulfill those obligations, but it’s also our job to fulfill and protect our neighborhoods and protect the people who look like us and come from places like us and don’t exactly have the same voices that we do,” CJ McCollum said last week to reporters during a Zoom call. “I think that’s been something that’s on all of our minds. We’ve been very proactive about it, and me who is a person who is big on education reform, I continue to try and have those conversations with like-minded people who care about education so we can continue to figure out ways to collectively make an impact and make a change.”

In the build-up to both leagues returning, statements were made that said social justice would be the focal point of the season. Already, we’ve seen “Black Lives Matter” painted on the courts that will be seen on televisions across the globe. The WNBA stitched Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of every player’s jersey. The NBA will be allowing players to pick from an approved list of social justice phrases to be put in place of their last name on their jerseys. But even this moment showed how far the NBA still has to come. While phrases like “I Can’t Breathe” and ‘Education Reform” made the list, not a single phrase calling for police reform was approved. 

While players like Donovan Mitchell will wear “Say Her Name” on the back of his and the entire Mavericks team will have “Equality” adorn the back of their jerseys, several players were quick to point out the issue with the list. Jaylen Brown said the list was “disappointing” because the players were not given a say over what should be included. LeBron James, while he commends anyone who chooses to do so, said he won’t be using one of the approved phrases, because it didn’t “resonate with him” and he would’ve like to have had a say in what he put on his Lakers jersey.

Still, though, fighting for change has been the overarching theme since the NBA and WNBA at their respective bubble sites. Even coaches, Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich specifically, have made statements regarding racial inequality, and worn shirts and hats with the words “vote” on it. Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said that she would be in favor of no longer using the Minneapolis police force help with game security when games return to the Target Center.  Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle starts every media session by reading a racial injustice passage from a calendar compiled by the Equal Justice Initiative. Players from several teams have answered questions with some variation of calling on Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to arrest and convict the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.

All of these gestures are ensuring that people are still engaged with the social justice issues the players are fighting for. However, Cooper notes there is still work to be done by both leagues if they are fully committed to fighting for change.

“In general, the rhetoric and some of the short-term actions that have been taken, I think that they are notable and should be commended,” Cooper said. “Do I think that they go far enough? I say no, but when I say no, it’s not an indictment just on the NBA and WNBA, it’s more about our entire society. Until we all resolve these inequalities and inequities in our society, we all have not done enough. Until women have the same opportunities in sports leadership positions as men, until African Americans are represented in leadership positions in sport comparable to the representation on the field or court I still think we all have a long way to go.”

As an example of how far we still have to go, Cooper pointed to Moore, who took time off from the game to help overturn the wrongful conviction of Jonathan Irons.

“It would be great instead of Maya Moore doing that on her own, what would it look like for the entire WNBA and NBA to help support those efforts,” Cooper said.

Change won’t happen overnight, but the recent wave of athlete activism has opened the door in both leagues even further for players to voice what they want to see happen and to actually see results. In a call with reporters back in June, Silver announced that the league has already taken steps to making tangible changes moving forward. The commissioner highlighted strategies to increase Black representation in all positions across the NBA and its teams, ensure greater inclusion of Black-operated businesses across NBA business activities, and the formation of an NBA foundation to expand educational and economic development opportunities across the black community. 

In early July, the WNBA and the WNBPA announced the launch of a Social Justice Council, which will be the “driving force of necessary and continuing conversations about race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and gun control among other important societal issue,” per the league’s press release.

These types of actions, ones that can be long-lasting, are what Cooper wants to see from sports leagues and its athletes. 

“The challenge isn’t what they do right now, right now it’s still very much in the heat of the pandemic and the social unrest, so all of the symbolic gestures are going to catch attention,” Cooper said. “What’s really going to be the measure of whether they are committed or not, is one year, two years, 10 years, 20 years. 

“Once this pandemic has scaled down, are you still committed to these issues or are you only doing symbolic gestures? That’s why they need to have a collection of people, representatives from different generations, different expertise, different involvements with the league come together to come up with a long-term strategy to demonstrate that we have a commitment to addressing these issues.”

We may not see the results of those changes for several years, but the past few months have shown a shift as it pertains to athlete activism. In the midst of a global health crisis, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement, NBA and WNBA players assembled in droves like never before. Instead of a small group of players trying to enact change, many superstars, rookies and veterans used their platform to make a difference. It even had a trickle effect down to the high school and collegiate level, where top basketball prospects are now considering the possibility of attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and in Makur Maker’s case, actually committing to that by choosing to attend Howard over blue-blood programs like UCLA, Kentucky and Memphis. 

Cooper is concerned that, because of social media, this current movement will become a fad, and people will grow tired of posting about it. But as players like Malcolm Brogdon launch foundations for social justice reform, real change can be seen. When LeBron James, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Trae Young come together to create a voting rights group aimed at helping and inspiring Black people to vote, progress toward ending voter suppression can be accomplished. These athletes are ensuring that as the games resume, not only are the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many others not forgotten, but that the conversation on racial inequality, police brutality and many other social justice issues won’t be ignored.



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