NBA players use platform to speak out for social justice

Declan McDaniels, Reporter

In September 2016, the sports world––and the rest of America––erupted when Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the police brutality occurring in the United States. Despite being ridiculed and criticized at the time, Kaepernick launched a powerful movement that many star athletes have since continued. In a time when America has been overtaken by social justice protests, many athletes have decided to use their platforms to bring necessary attention to issues such as police brutality

This has been especially apparent since May 2020, when outrage broke out over the death of George Floyd, who spent his last breath begging for his life at the hands of police. This example and others of systemic inequity have brought forth a new era of advocacy for justice and reform. The National Basketball Association (NBA) recently put themselves at the forefront of athlete advocacy. 

For years, athletes attempting to speak out on social injustices have been silenced by critics who claim that politics and sports should not be intertwined. In 2018, Lebron James made comments about Donald Trump on James’ “Uninterrupted” show, saying that Trump “doesn’t understand the people, and really doesn’t give a f*** about the people.” In response to this, Fox News host Laura Ingraham infamously said that athletes like James should “shut up and dribble,” claiming that James’ comments on Trump were  “ignorant” and “barely intelligible.” NBA players and other athletes have always been criticized for their political comments, which was further perpetuated by Ingraham’s criticism. Danielle Kestenbaum, the Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) class advisor, is one of many people who disagrees with silencing the political views of athletes and celebrities.

“Anti-racism, equity and human rights are not political issues, [they are] human issues that have been politicized. I think it is highly problematic and highly ignorant for people to say [“shut up and dribble”] because we are living in such a highly politicized time,” Kestenbaum said. “If people want to express their voice, we have the first amendment; it doesn’t say the first amendment applies except if you are an athlete. I think anyone who has a platform and can use their platform should, and it’s someone’s own fragility that causes them to say that [they should not].”

Players were allowed to put a message representing issues of social injustice on the back of their jersey in place of their name. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

More recently, the NBA had continued their 2019-2020 season in Orlando, isolated in the Disney World resort nicknamed “the bubble,” due to COVID-19 precautions. While some players were concerned that the continuation of the season would detract from issues of racial injustice, the NBA made significant efforts to bring awareness to the problem. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” was painted on every court in Orlando, and players were given the option of putting a message on the back of their jersey in place of or in addition to their name. Some of the most popular words and phrases on their jerseys include ‘Equality,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Say Their Names,’ ‘I Can’t Breathe,’ ‘How Many More,’ ‘Enough,’ ‘Peace’ and ‘Justice.’ 

After Jacob Blake was shot multiple times in the back by a police officer in front of his children, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for a playoff game in protest. The rest of the teams at the bubble soon followed the Bucks’ example, and the NBA did not play a game for four days. Bucks players such as guards George Hill and Sterling Brown spoke up in a live speech before game five of their first-round series.

 “Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we have seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so, our focus today cannot be on basketball,” Brown said. 

The Los Angeles Lakers kneeled during the national anthem while wearing their “Black Lives Matter” warmup shirts. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

After seeing the gruesome video of Blake, many players took to Twitter to speak out about the matter, calling for justice. James is one of many players who consistently use their platform to voice their opinions on issues of racial injustice, and teammate Anthony Davis is thankful to have a player to look up to.

“Our main focus is on social justice, and we are lucky to have a ton of guys who are public figures like [James], [Chris Paul], all these guys who are always on the forefront and speaking out and able to kind of guide the younger guys and stand up in the right direction and kind of follow their lead,” Davis said. “We are fortunate as an organization to have one on our team who loves to go out there and put his foot forward, and we kind of just follow his footsteps and kind of make sure we’re doing the right things as well.”

Los Angeles Lakers teammates Anthony Davis and Lebron James playing in game two of the NBA finals. (Courtesy of Getty Images)

The NBA continued to show their support for justice until the season ended, and this will likely carry over to next season. Many players have called upon their team owners and local government officials to begin discussions addressing these discrepancies and create equality, and many NBA teams have pledged to turn their home arenas into voting centers on election day. Even during trying times, many NBA players find that it is crucial for them to take advantage of their substantial platforms to help create positive change against racial disparity in our country.