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NBA leads the way in addressing social issues

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Davis VanOpdorp
August 27, 2020

The Milwaukee Bucks' boycott of a playoff game over the police shooting of Jacob Blake sent ripples across US sports. The display again proved the NBA does not shy away from social issues, says DW's Davis VanOpdorp.

USA Basketball Boycott in der NBA Milwaukee Bucks - Orlando Magic
Image: Reuters/USA TODAY Sports/Kevin C. Cox

It's no coincidence that an NBA basketball team spurned a massive boycott across American sports.

Unlike other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has long condoned players using their platforms to participate in social discourse. It took the unprecedented step of actively promoting the Black Lives Matter movement when play resumed at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

So when a 29-year-old black man named Jacob Blake was shot multiple times by a police officer in front of his three sons in Wisconsin, it was no surprise that the local basketball team, the Milwaukee Bucks, were the first to act.

The Bucks decision not to take the floor against the Orlando Magic for a playoff game not only led to more than a dozen other game postponements across US sports, but was also "wholeheartedly" endorsed by team ownership.

Though the league's first-ever boycott has put an already delayed season in jeopardy, the fact remains that the NBA remains one of the only platforms in sports where pushing for social change is welcome.

DW's Davis VanOpdorp
DW's Davis VanOpdorp

Return with meaning

For many basketball players in the NBA, returning to play in July from a coronavirus-induced hiatus was never only about basketball.

Some players expressed concerns that a season restart, though critical for the league financially, would overshadow important discourse in US society over the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

So amid massive anti-racism demonstrations in the United States over the police killing of George Floyd, the world's biggest basketball league allowed its players to use its large platform to promote social change.

"Black Lives Matter" has been prominently displayed in every arena used as part of the Orlando restart. Players have personalized messages — such as "Equality," "Liberation," and "Love Us" — on the back of their jerseys.

Such a league-wide display of solidarity with a social issue is rarely seen in sports. And when the players on Wednesday wanted to express that such messages weren't enough, the league has so far not stood in their way.

There are limits to the NBA’s progressive nature. After a board of governors meeting on Thursday, the league maintained that the season would finish, though some players — including Lebron James, according to US reports — were in favor canceling the rest of the playoffs.

But, like the Milwaukee Bucks ownership, the NBA fully stood behind their players on Thursday. Teams even shared on social media the publicly listed phone numbers and emails of the district attorney and mayor of Kenosha, where Jacob Blake was shot, for fans to voice their complaints.

The NBA's approach to social issues hasn't always been perfect. Last year, the Houston Rockets distanced themselves from remarks made by its general manager, Darryl Morrey, supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which led Chinese broadcasters to bar the team's games. But even in that instance, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league's role wasn't to "regulate" its players, coaches, and executives.

With its willingness to confront racial justice and to allow, and even encourage, players to stand for what they believe, the NBA sets itself apart from many of the world's top sports leagues.