Black NBA players and coaches grapple with how their power can really cause racial justice changes

Seerat Sohi
·5 min read

On Aug. 26, 2020, Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill made a small choice, creating ripples that eventually brought sports to a brief, unplanned halt. He decided he couldn’t play basketball in a bubble while Kenosha, Wisconsin, just south of Milwaukee, was erupting with protests after Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot multiple times and paralyzed by Kenosha officer Rusten Sheskey.

The players flipped the script: If sports are a distraction, what do sports owe society in exchange? Perhaps a vested interest in social justice on behalf of billionaire team owners.

The NBA was quick to get on the players’ side, to voice support for what was essentially a wildcat strike from its employees. The team owners hastily came to the table and agreed to pledge money and commit to voting initiatives, and the games resumed. But just five days into 2021, the Kenosha County District Attorney announced Sheskey wouldn’t face charges.

This kind of injustice crushes not only through enforcement but by crushing hope. Across the NBA, the DA’s decision felt like a rebuke of the statement the players made. The next day, we watched mostly white President Donald Trump supporters break into the U.S. Capitol. We watched the police show restraint.

“It reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King said. In one America, you get killed while sleeping in your car, smoking cigarettes or playing in your backyard,” Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “In another America, you get to storm the Capitol. No tear gas, no mass arrests. None of that. It’s obvious. It’s 2021, and I don’t think anything has changed.”

Jaylen Brown looks to pass against the Toronto Raptors during their game on Monday.
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown was one of many NBA players and coaches who spoke out after the U.S. Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Before they had a chance to process the week’s events, players were asked to respond. Prior to tip-off, the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors locked arms. The Bucks and Detroit Pistons kneeled. So did the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics and Miami Heat left the court and then returned, issuing this statement.

Suns head coach Monty Williams met the moment by admitting that it was impossible to. He is a sieve at the podium. No question too probing. No answer that doesn’t reveal something new.

The first thing he did when he saw the protests was check in with his mom to make sure the unrest hadn’t seeped into Prince George’s County, where he grew up, just miles from the Capitol.

“It’s one of those situations where, as a coach, I watch it on TV, I feel like everybody else: I’m confused,” Williams said. “Even though we heard this kind of thing could happen, there’s still a level of confusion and sadness.

“The thing I’m always mindful of as a former athlete and now a coach, we’ve been given these positions and platforms that allow us to help when we can. We don’t necessarily have to solve problems, but we can be part of some of the solutions. And when I look at what I’m seeing, I find it hard to figure out ways to help. I’m sad for the kids in our country that have to watch this. Our kids are always watching us for behaviors that should be repeated, and I feel bad for them.”

Phoenix Suns head coaches Monty Williams and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse stand arm-in-arm with their assistant coaches and players.
Phoenix Suns head coaches Monty Williams and Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse stand arm-in-arm during the national anthem before their game on Jan. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

A day earlier, Williams talked about “rules that stifle,” a phrase he picked up from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. I asked what some of those were — a “basketball question.” I didn’t get a basketball answer.

“I didn’t like hoodies and stuff like that in practice,” Williams said. “As an African American, I struggled with the example of wearing hoodies in certain environments, how that could affect children, because of what happened with Trayvon Martin. I didn’t like when basketball players would wear their hoodies in games or practices, and I struggled with it because I knew the effect that athletes had on kids. I think I’ve grown in that area because I don’t think we should have to worry about what we wear, and where we wear it at.”

A basketball question.

Is there ever such a thing? It’s difficult to compartmentalize. It’s nearly impossible to compartmentalize and be honest at the same time. By being honest, Williams got to the heart of a contradiction Black people have to live with: One America puts the other America in impossible situations and expects it to react with grace. White people think Black people in hoodies are suspicious. Do you put yourself at risk and fight that stereotype? Or do you prize safety, even if it means you let the stereotype win?

Should the players have refused to play altogether, and risk the financial health of the league in what has already been a down year? In the coming days, it’s likely we’ll talk about whether the players’ stances were effective. Clippers forward Marcus Morris has already said he thought kneeling wasn’t enough, that they shouldn’t have played. Those are conversations worth having. It’s fair to scrutinize the actions of anyone in proximity to power.

NBA players and coaches inhabit a strange contradiction: they are both powerful and at the mercy of power. We all are, on some level. But only Black people are asked to reckon with this contradiction, and to keep pushing, regardless of the cost, until they find the line, while they watch others cross it without impunity.

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