Damian Lillard on social justice: Athletes 'have to be active participants to show that this affects us too'

Daniel Roberts
·Editor-at-Large
·5 min read

Last summer, when more than 15 million people took part in protest marches across the country after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, many celebrities and athletes spoke out on social media about the injustice. But Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard made headlines when he marched alongside protesters in Portland in June, linking arms with people in the crowd. Shortly thereafter, he also released a rap song about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Lillard now says that was about participating actively in the movement, beyond just posting on social media.

“We have to participate—and obviously, people are going to use their platforms—but we’ve got to be out there, active, actively showing that this affects us too, and searching for ways to try to be a part of the change,” Lillard told Yahoo Finance in an extensive interview about his new investment in PlayersTV, his other business ventures, and his efforts to spur social justice reform.

Lillard was one of the biggest stars of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the bubble format in Orlando, but the NBA and WNBA bubbles also made waves for the political outspokenness of the players during that time. The WNBA dedicated its season to Breonna Taylor; NBA players wore phrases on the backs of their jerseys like “Say their names” and “Justice now,” and the NBA and NBPA formed a social justice coalition to organize action around social justice and equality.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 20:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers warms up before action against the Los Angeles Lakers in game two of the first round of the NBA playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 20, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers warms up before action against the Los Angeles Lakers in game two of the first round of the NBA playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 20, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)

“In the bubble, I thought everybody sat back and realized, man, a lot of us Black men, we make up the majority of the NBA, and most of us come from a background where we had run-ins with the cops,” Lillard says. “I've been pulled over, I've been at gunpoint. I've had all these experiences as a kid. So I think what you saw with the bubble was players having that thought of: We've experienced this, this is where we come from, and it's not right for us to just go play basketball and leave it up to everybody else. We’ve got to be active participants. We’ve got to make a stand and put as much attention on this as we possibly can. And I thought we did that.”

Now the NBA’s 2021 season is already underway, and what happened in the 2020 bubble was “just a small piece to what needs to be done,” Lillard says. “How do we help now?”

Lillard has a lot going on off the court, including a new investment in PlayersTV, the athlete-owned content network. In 2021, the platform will get a documentary about his career, “Dame,” and an original series in which he makes music with other musicians, “Sessions.” Lillard aims to further promote social justice through some of the new content he’ll create.

He also had a visceral reaction, along with much of the country, to the violence at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.

“It’s disturbing, especially as a Black man, to have to fight so hard just for equality,” Lillard says. “You're not asking for more, it’s just equality. Give me a fair shot, treat me fairly, value my life the same. And then it makes it worse when you wake up and see them rushing the Capitol building, and people climbing on walls and taking pictures in offices. And just the disrespect, you know what I mean? The fact that it's like, ‘I could do this and I'm going to be perfectly fine, I'm going to come out of here alive, no worries, no cares in the world.’ And you can't help but think, if those were Black people doing that, I can't imagine what would have happened. I'm not a person that pulls the race card on everything, but I couldn't help but think, if that was Black people doing that, there would have been a lot of dead people. It's disturbing, you know what I mean, and it's like, when is it going to start to change?”

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, second from right, the kneels with teammates and coaches during the national anthem before an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, second from right, the kneels with teammates and coaches during the national anthem before an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, July 31, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Mike Ehrmann/Pool Photo via AP)

The event made Lillard even more determined to speak out, and he notes that NBA players feel more encouraged to speak out on such issues than ever before.

“In the past, I feel like it would have been much more harsh repercussions for speaking out and putting yourself under a microscope and putting yourself in that position,” he says. “There might be a black eye on whatever league you represent or whatever team you represent, they might say don't do this or don't do that, and try to control it. But I think now, because of the social change that we've had over the years, and in the NBA, how supportive they have been of the players, I think that's only going to cause the players to feel more confident and comfortable with coming forward... I think teams and leagues have to be careful with that, and they have to respect the opinions of the athletes more now, as opposed to the way it was back then.”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and specializes in sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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