How the NBA Became Our New Black Superheroes

How the NBA Became Our New Black Superheroes

T’Challa rests in power, but a nation of powerful Black men have donned the cape

As one Black superhero, Chadwick Boseman, rests in power, another group of Black men have worked to don the cape. Last week, the Milwaukee Bucks adorned their cape and accepted the responsibility to make the world a better place. By refusing to come out of the locker room to play a scheduled playoff game after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the team effectively ratcheted up the pressure for the Wisconsin state legislature to address racial justice — even if that legislature ultimately opted for inaction — and sparked a wave of work stoppages across professional sports.

Sports has always been one of the three muses that inspires my work. (The other two are Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” both of which speak to the atrocity done to Black people at the hands of authority.) Song can tell a story of community, of pain, suffering, and gives voice to the voiceless. Sports is the agitator of conversation, of social construct. We all have a touchpoint with sports, even if we’re not active viewers. It looms large in society. It’s the start to many watercooler conversations. It’s a foundation for small talk, a vehicle for social activity.

It’s also, due to the sheer force of the emotional and financial connections we have to sports, where social debates ignite. It’s where LGBTQ identity challenged the consciousness of sports fans when Michael Sam got drafted by the NFL. It’s where domestic violence awareness reached a new level when the elevator video of Ray Rice emerged. It’s where the gender pay gap was on display when the women’s soccer team raised their Olympic gold medals as the men watched from the stands. It’s where racism was permitted to sit on the 50-yard line as Colin Kaepernick kneeled, and a Supreme Court justice called his act of protest “dumb and disrespectful.”

And above all, it’s where the fraught dynamics of race come into play. Every Saturday in the fall, Black bodies are sacrificed on the college football field for entertainment — often in Southern states that take “pride” in their Southern heritage, for universities that have a complicated history with race. (But at least they get an educational scholarship that they should be thankful for, right?) And don’t even get me started with the White gaze on the Black male body at the NFL and NBA draft combines.

Fighting for justice is what superheroes do — take on the struggle for people who may not have the ability to do so on their own.

To its credit, though, the NBA seems to understand the complicated relationship between race and sports. The league has habitually been the first to course-correct the all-too-common plantation mentality in American sports built on the backs of Black athletes: In the association, franchise owners are now referred to as governors.

In 2015, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) reported that Black athletes made up 74.4% of all NBA athletes. In a recent statement issued by the Los Angeles Lakers supporting the Milwaukee Bucks, the team goes further in the assessment of Black players in the NBA: “Eighty percent of NBA players are Black men. We cannot love them for the joy and entertainment that they bring to the world, yet sit in silence and fail to use our platforms and resources to amplify their voices when they demand the justice and equality that America has promised us all, but denied Black people for too long.”

So when critics like Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” little did they know, it was like supercharging his uniform with Wakandan Vibranium — absorbing and redistributing it to the nine other highest-paid NBA players this season, all of whom are Black: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Damian Lillard. A team of Avengers fighting for the rights of Black folks to realize the American dream.

This is collective bargaining power. This is change. This is why we all have to stop and pay attention. This is our NBA players standing on the shoulders of past sports icons who not only gave them permission, but gave them a reason why. Most notably, Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War by refusing to go into the armed forces in 1966 — temporarily ending his own career by having his passport and boxing license taken away in every state as a result. “No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of White slave masters over dark people the world over,” Ali said in a 1976 speech. “I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality…”

Fighting for justice is what superheroes do — take on the struggle for people who may not have the ability to do so on their own. And it’s not just the NBA Avengers. The WNBA has been just as (if not more) vocal about social justice throughout 2020, wearing jerseys with Breonna Taylor’s name throughout the entire season and standing arm-in-arm in solidarity last week instead of playing. The Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore took an entire season off at the prime of her career to help free an unjustly imprisoned man. Tell me that’s not a superhero.

Through all of this, it’s Black buying power that keeps the game going. According to a study by the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, “the African American market has seen a 114% increase in buying power” since 2000. And Black men in particular have more “influence on household athletic shoe purchasing decisions and are more brand loyal than other racial segments of millennials when it comes to purchasing athletic shoes.” Black Americans spent $391 per consumer unit on athletic footwear in 2006, more than any other race that year. (Often, that money skews Nike: Black, Hispanic, and Asian consumers are all more strongly represented in Nike’s consumer base than they are in the U.S. population.)

Why does this matter? Because according to The Atlantic, the NBA “has the highest share of Black viewers, at 45% — three times higher than the NFL or NCAA basketball.”

If there are any questions as to how athletes can derail the NBA playoffs to support issues plaguing Black Americans, frustrations that they’re using their voice on behalf of those who will never have a post-game interview, or offenses taken by their jerseys highlighting injustice, ask yourself: How could they not? Black Americans have issued the Bat-Signal for so long for our athletes to use their platforms; finally, they have answered the call. May the words and spirit of T’Challa live within them.