NBA's Fight for Social Justice Emboldened After U.S. Capitol Siege

After pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the NBA continued to play on without delay. But the siege did not go unnoticed by players and coaches.
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On a particularly terrible night, where sports felt even more trivial than they normally do, the insurrection in Washington, D.C., did not go unnoticed around the NBA. Several players and coaches rightfully called it out for what it was: an egregious case of white American exceptionalism.

Members of an angry mob stormed, and then breached, the United States Capitol without immediate consequence. “Racism is real. The issues are real. The protests are real,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said during a Zoom press conference. “What we’re seeing now is a sad reality that our country has yet to reckon with and acknowledge.”

76ers coach Doc Rivers echoed the sentiment: “You know I’ll say it because I don’t think a lot of people want to. Could you imagine today if those were all Black people storming the Capitol, and what would have happened? You know, so that to me is a picture that’s worth a 1,000 words to all of us to see. Probably something for us to reckon with again.”

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Twenty-year-old Sacramento Kings rookie guard Tyler Haliburton condensed the immense privilege on display by calling it “as American as it gets.”

Draymond Green felt the same way, capping his own dispirited reaction by saying “that’s just what this country is, that’s what this country’s been, and like I said before, that’s where this country probably will stay.”

The message was consistent with the league’s broad opposition against those who refuse to allow an entire race’s humanity, but, as one of the more direct responses to oppression since last season ended, it opens a door to wonder why some agonizing events are ignored while others are met with communal protest. More than anything, this speaks to the uncharted nature of this social justice movement, an endless fight that feasts on the cynical exhaustion thrust upon those who care the most.

In December, police officers in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed Casey Goodson Jr., a 23-year-old Black man, as he walked into his home, sandwich in hand. Three weeks later, in the same city, an unarmed 47-year-old named Andre Hill was gunned down by the same department. He too was Black. Neither tragedy catalyzed the same response from members of the NBA community that other unjust killings had.

This isn’t a criticism of anyone’s response, or lack thereof. It’s to point out the scope of this issue, the cold fact that senseless death comes in waves like water to the shore. The next question is a timeless one that’s constantly evolving, subjective, and personal: What role should the players have? Should James Harden be scolded for responding to a question about the unprecedented criminal happenings in this nation’s capital by saying “I didn’t see it”? Or should a Black man not have to speak up about injustice every time he’s asked to do so?

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This also applies to players who want to channel their own influence by reflecting society’s greater call for change and action. There’s no one correct way to go about it. That isn’t to say there aren’t proven, effective methods, though. The WNBA is a paragon in the field, elevating Raphael Warnock’s name into the public conscious in early August by wearing black “Vote Warnock” T-shirts as a way to express displeasure with Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, an appointed Republican senator who went on to run and lose a hateful re-election campaign earlier this week.

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Last night, several teams initiated pregame gestures of solidarity. The Bucks and Pistons took a knee right after their opening tip. As an idea from Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors and Suns held hands and stood in a circle around midcourt.

The Warriors and Clippers also took a knee, as did the Heat and Celtics, who walked off the court during pregame warmups before releasing a joint statement that thoughtfully captured their own hurt and frustration, punctuating the discrimination-based contradictions on display as rioters sowed one of the country’s most democratic days with chaos and violence. The players saw firsthand how law enforcement and the federal government treated peaceful protests throughout the summer, and it wasn’t with patience or understanding

Jaylen Brown quoted Martin Luther King Jr. after the Celtics won, saying, “In one America you get killed by sleeping in your car, selling cigarettes or playing in your backyard. In another America, you get to storm the Capitol. No tear gas, no massive arrests. None of that. It’s 2021. I don’t think anything has changed.”

These actions will draw criticism from a segment of viewers who prove, in the words of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, that the heartbeat of racism is denial. Even if those people refuse to listen, it’s still right for players to foreground points of dissension every chance they get. It matters.

Whether or not any NBA team should or should not play is almost trite at this point, though. Their days-long strike during the bubble was a powerful display of emotion and heartache. Helplessness manifesting into historic action. The specific shooting that led to it occurred in Kenosha, Wis., where a police officer named Rusten Sheskey shot a Black man named Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he tried to enter the front seat of a car that his children were already inside.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Sheskey will face no charges for paralyzing his fellow man. There will be no justice for Blake, because his skin color petrified someone who was sworn to protect him. That is the America NBA players want to spotlight. To not play would be virtuous, disruptive and at a personal cost for those who refused to step on the court. Instead, more and more are using their voices, participating in ceremonial actions in front of so many who refuse to stop and think about the actual systemic problems that plague this floundering nation.

And as imperfect as their actions, statements and tweets might feel to some who’d like to see players embrace an even deeper responsibility, keeping the issue alive, roiling in its discomfort and treating it as a conversation that needs to happen is so much more effective than nothing at all. Everything that happened inside the bubble was only the beginning. Going forward, so much more still needs to be done.

What that means, exactly, is still unknown. As President of the NBPA, Paul still isn’t sure what the next steps are. Members of the NBA community who care enough to make an effort are trying to navigate these dark and precarious times along with everybody else.

“I’ve said all along after November 3rd, it was great, everybody wanted people to vote November 3rd,” Pierce said. “But after November 3rd, what are we going to do as a country? What am I going to do as a coach? What are we doing to do as an organization? This is why. We knew this was coming.”