If NBA Teams Want to Take a Real Stand, Now Is Their Chance. But We Haven't Seen It Yet

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, NBA teams have mostly been sympathetic on social media. What will they do after the conversation?
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Unless you’re living in the bunker the president uses to hide from protesters and your phone battery has died, if you’re a sports fan, you’ve seen your favorite team release a statement about the killing of George Floyd, a Minneapolis resident who was pleading for his life while an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while three other officers watched. These statements all offer very similar platitudes. A stand against injustice! A strong condemnation of racism! A commitment to equality! A pledge to listen! The vast majority of these statements also fail to mention the specific institution responsible for Floyd’s death: the police.

This is—to say the least—an uncomfortable time in this nation’s history. A pandemic that’s killed more than 100,000 people continues to endanger lives. Major cities are putting their populations under curfew as a countermeasure to protests against police brutality, criminalizing those who wish to speak out. And the president, in between using his Facebook account to threaten violence against citizens, is trying to tweet through it. The last few weeks have increasingly felt as if they are leading toward a make-or-break moment, and individuals and institutions alike are going to have to decide whether they want to fall on the side of antiracism and everything that requires, or whether they’ll simply be happy with life returning to the status quo—even if that status quo has led to the events of the past few weeks.

While the NBA hasn’t explicitly sought to position itself as a progressive sports league (there’s that pesky salary cap!), it’s benefited from that reputation over the past few years. And that reputation stems largely from not silencing its politically inclined players, the majority of whom are Black and have spoken out about issues pertaining but not limited to Donald Trump, school shootings, and systemic racism. Meanwhile, the league itself is somewhere much closer to the other end of the spectrum, most recently working with Trump to bring back players from overseas so the league can start resuming to make money during a pandemic. The NBA definitely likes to consider itself forward-thinking, even if that largely comes from the efforts of its labor force and less so from its higher levels. But how the league reacts to Floyd’s murder will shine a spotlight on what “forward-thinking” really means.

Let’s talk about the Floyd statements put out by nearly every team, except the Knicks, who should be contracted. Many of the statements are aggressively passive, borderline insulting, and frankly weak. Only four teams even released statements that say Floyd was killed or murdered, and of those four, two were written by Black coaches. Most of the PR dumps refer to the “death of” Floyd, or his “loss,” as if he was magically lifted away and not choked out.

In 2020, merely acknowledging systemic racism or social injustices or privilege is not some heroic act. These are ideas people, especially Black people, have been discussing for years. The Warriors put out a statement saying they “condemn, in no uncertain terms, racism and violence perpetrated against the Black community.” You really had to clarify that? Shouldn’t that be your default position already? At best, these types of statements are inoffensive. At worst, they impede change by serving as an illusion of progress without any action to back it up.

Systemic and ingrained racism is a problem. It’s why white people with a felony conviction are more likely to get a job than a Black person without a criminal record, even if they have the same qualifications. But while police brutality is a manifestation of systemic racism, it’s still a distinct issue, and if sports organizations really want to start a conversation or look for solutions, then they have to recognize police violence as an issue and what can be done to fix it. These are the uncomfortable conversations society has to have if it wants to move forward from this moment. Calling racism systemic but not doing anything to break apart that system doesn’t help.

Now is a popular time for organizations to say they aim to help but don’t know the solutions themselves. Meanwhile, the solutions to police brutality are being discussed. Defunding is a start. In Los Angeles, $1.86 billion has been allocated for the LAPD, a $120 million increase and more than triple the sum of the housing, streets and transportation budgets. Defunding police departments may sound drastic to people who’ve lived their entire lives believing police exist to protect and serve, but that’s obviously not the case for every race. And federal interventions into policing on the procedural level have been ineffective, as both studies and the events of the last month have shown.

Why am I singling out NBA teams? Well, let me start by saying this is everyone’s fight. It’s every sports organization, it’s every politician, it’s every citizen. But seeing so many teams from the “progressive” league put out these mind-numbing statements shows these organizations want to be seen as helpful, so they need to follow through with actions. Empty gestures are no longer cutting it. (I do want to commend the teams that have put out stronger statements, particularly the Pelicans, who acknowledged Floyd’s murder and cited the work they’ve done locally.)

I remember asking an NBA general manager once whether his job was as fun as it seemed, whether he enjoyed making trades and all the stuff writers throw around on Twitter. He told me his job also meant having a relationship with the city manager and the mayor, and being involved in the community. This isn’t unique. Sports organizations are intertwined with local politics, from using off-duty cops as security, to seeking out tax money for their various endeavors. And the NBA profits from a labor force that’s mostly Black, and many of those players themselves have been engaged in protests around the country. That means the league is in a unique position to affect change.

Start simple. Host a “Black Lives Matter” night that informs citizens about how they can be involved in antiracism causes. Owners can leverage their influence with local politicians to help elect those who are serious about policies that affect police brutality. Support measures that increase transparency and accountability for local police departments. Teams can provide resources to programs that serve as alternatives to policing, like restorative justice models or access to mental health care. And if organizations want to listen, listen to the demands of the protestors or the families of the victims of police brutality, the people who are on the frontline of this issue.

While NBA teams (and many, many other organizations) have put out flaccid statements, this isn’t supposed to be a flogging. It’s an opportunity. Not everyone has had a chance to educate themselves on what’s happening right now, but time is running out to use that excuse. If teams really want to be a part of the change, now is their chance. Owners are sitting on billion-dollar-plus assets with outsize influence and resources within their cities. There are solutions to our current issues that, however extreme they may sound to some, protestors have been fighting for for years, every day. So many NBA teams have pledged to come together and join in the outrage over the killing of George Floyd. It’s what they’re willing to do next that really matters.