Had NBA players stepped away from microphone, America would’ve had easier time ignoring their message

On Wednesday morning, much of the portion of this country that cares deeply about sports — and it is vast, though not nearly universal — encountered the opportunity to hear from Clippers head coach Doc Rivers on the subject of being a Black man in America in the early part of the 21st century.

It was a mournful, enlightening, even painful dissertation, in which the words that resonated most profoundly distilled the tears, concerns, dread and hope of his 58 years.

“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back.”

He made this statement in the aftermath of a playoff victory over the Mavericks, during a Zoom press call that included an initial question about the Clippers’ defensive adjustments against Mavs superstar Luka Doncic but a very rapid follow-up about Rivers’ feelings regarding the shooting Sunday of Jacob Blake by a law enforcement officer in Kenosha, Wis. It has been common for reporters to ask such questions or for coaches and players being interviewed to disseminate a message prior to, or instead of, discussing Xs and Os.

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In the continuing fight for racial justice, that’s a hell of a platform to surrender. Their decision to complete the season is essential for that reason and some even more acute.

In making the decision Thursday to continue competing, the NBA players avoided handing a victory to their most ardent opponents. There is a segment of America that loathes the overwhelming success of African Americans in the NBA, that dismisses the NBA because of its blackness. You can see it plainly in some of the comments posted to social media sites in the aftermath of the Bucks’ decision not to enter the court. Some merely were dismissive. Some were vulgar and vile.

There are those not contemptuous, of course, but wishing for a pure distraction, who enjoy basketball and other professional sports but prefer it not be served with a side dish of social justice messaging. They may continue to be disappointed, but presumably they still will watch. And listen.

For the 28 days since the NBA season resumed, the words “Black Lives Matter” have been prominent on the courts where all the remaining regular-season games, and the opening round of the NBA playoffs, have been contested. Those who tuned in saw it. It was inescapable. People either embraced that message or disregarded it or seethed or erupted, but they saw it.

When a special play was executed by someone whose identity was not obvious, someone other than an established star such as LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, a viewer who checked the player’s back shoulders to establish his identity instead found the message “Say Her Name” or “Equality” or “Vote.” People either embraced those messages or disregarded them or seethed or erupted, but they saw them.

The significance of Wednesday’s decision by the Bucks not to contest their first-round playoff game against the Magic — which led to the postponement of the day’s remaining NBA games as well as all action in the WNBA, contests in Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, and even some NFL practices scheduled for Thursday — will endure even after competition resumes in various venues.

The players remaining in the NBA playoffs met Wednesday evening to discuss their next course of action, with the majority, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, voting to resume competition and the Clippers and Lakers voting to cease. They met again Thursday to discuss next steps, while the NBA Board of Governors convened separately at the same hour, and the players chose to move forward with the remaining rounds of the championship chase.

The threat to abandon the playoffs retains the potential to engender positive consequence, of course. There is at least one owner in the NBA, Houston’s Tilman Fertita, who has been a major donor to the Trump campaign and has made public statements in support of the president. One family member involved in ownership of the Magic is current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. There is money and power across the board in the league’s ownership structure. They have agreed to the display of protest messaging in the bubble venue, but they have the collective might to advocate for more: better police training, greater consequence for malfeasance, increased minority representation in positions of authority.

Warriors forward Draymond Green is not involved in this year’s playoffs, though he has appeared as a panelist on TNT’s studio show. He expressed in a tweet that continuing the season serves to build “that very platform that we are using to speak for OUR PEOPLE.”

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, acclaimed sociologist Harry Edwards, who has been engaged with sports and protests for racial equality long enough to have influenced the Black Power salute by Olympian sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, praised the boycott by NBA players but said there’s no reason to continue that action once a “strategic plan” is established.

“Now the issue becomes, as I’ve told some of the athletes and coaches: How do you create a strategy that gets you to the next steps?” Edwards told Yahoo. “And that’s always the challenge, to move from protest to progress.”

Rivers himself was reported to have told the players Wednesday evening that their power is in their talent. The NBA players, and the athletes in other sports who followed their lead, have become prominent because they have rare abilities. To step away from the stages they have earned would have risked mitigating their opportunity to continue affecting change, to continue changing minds.

They are not going away. Their voice will be heard.

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