The NBA Bubble Was Never the Players’ Platform to Fight Systemic Racism
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The NBA Bubble Was Never the Players’ Platform to Fight Systemic Racism

Corporate activism feels warm, fuzzy, and progressive, but optics aren’t the same as real change

Reality pierced the NBA bubble when the buzzer sounded ahead of last week’s playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic — and neither team was present on the court. The continuation of the punctuated 2019–20 season had been heavy with “social justice” messaging amid a summer of global protests following more police killings of Black men and women. But after an officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back in front of his children, the Bucks’ refusal to take the court triggered a work stoppage that brought the NBA playoffs to a halt. Less than 24 hours later, however, players were back on board with resuming the season for the second time. So much for revolution.

The restarted NBA season, which kicked off in late July, has been positioned as a different kind of campaign from the start: a tournament with a goal greater than a championship. Players demanded that the season be used as a vehicle to address the systemic racism that sparked the summer’s protests. The league gave players a list of tame, preapproved messages to place on the backs of their jerseys — phrases like “How Many More” or “Say Their Names” or “Vote.” It painted “Black Lives Matter” on the court inside of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex (a move not every team owner was fond of). Teams lock arms and kneel during the national anthem as a display of unity.

Alas, this all emphasizes why no platform created by a corporation could ever be the stage for the changes necessary to effectively combat racism. This reality — the elephant in the bubble, if you will — was underlined by Blake’s shooting. The players, already frustrated, took dramatic action, but the inspiring moment was labeled historic before it actually yielded results. The wildcat strike ultimately ended with the league and the players’ union agreeing on a three-point plan that prioritizes voting instead of the players’ other grievances. Overall, this illustrates the problem with “unity” and the limits of corporate activism. The NBA bubble was never the players’ platform; it’s always been the league’s.

Voting isn’t activism, and it alone will not fix the problems players want addressed. Overall, this reads like a light lift on the league’s part that’s messaged as “meaningful and sustainable change” — a victory for all.

It’s no secret why the 2019–20 season resumed in the midst of a pandemic: capitalism. The bubble was created because the financial impact of discontinuing the season would’ve been catastrophic for the league and players alike. But as protests began and several players became vocal about America’s mistreatment of Black people, the league understood that it had to do something to satisfy a workforce that’s nearly 75% Black. The effort has felt like a forced marketing campaign to the point that every variation of “creating change” and “social justice” have become buzzwords. The sanctioned messages are more of an attempt to pacify players than bring actual awareness to any specific issue. The bubble is a prime example of corporate activism, which virtue-signals while maintaining the status quo. The league has pledged $300 million over the next 10 years to stimulate “economic growth in the Black community,” and while that number is nothing to sneer at, capitalism isn’t activism.

The other shortcoming of corporate activism is that it’s often contradictory. “Black Lives Matter” has been the catchphrase of the summer from many corporations with track records and employee demographics that say otherwise. The NBA has bombarded audiences with Black Lives Matter content in addition to featuring it prominently on the court in the bubble, but it doesn’t have its own house in order in that regard.

Last year, a deputy for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department — the county that until this season was home to the Golden State Warriors — accused Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri of striking him as he rushed the court without credentials to celebrate the Raptors winning their first NBA title. The story was always dubious, but the deputy’s body-cam footage surfaced recently, showing that he actually pushed Ujiri as the executive attempted to show his credentials and join the team. In a 2019 episode of Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, NBA commissioner Adam Silver described the situation as one Ujiri, “as a leader,” needed to learn to avoid. Ujiri released a statement saying the situation only occurred because he’s Black. Meanwhile, even as players denounce the methods of policing that lead to what Ujiri experienced, the NBA has yet to reexamine its own relationship with law enforcement in the bubble.

Moments like this make it disheartening to see the NBA spin the strike and its outcome into a collaborative effort with the players. These ballers exercised their leverage by withholding labor during the playoffs, leaving the league with no choice but to listen lest it face inevitable public backlash. Instead, the resolution feels like the players agreed to the bare minimum: a “social justice coalition” focusing on “increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform”; a commitment to turn every arena owned by the team’s owner into a polling location in the 2020 general election; and commercials promoting “greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity” airing during every playoff game.

The second measure, transforming arenas into voting locations, is significant, but the fact that it had to be negotiated is telling. Furthermore, voting isn’t activism, and it alone will not fix the problems players want addressed. Overall, this reads like a light lift on the league’s part that’s messaged as “meaningful and sustainable change” — a victory for all.

However, Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics remains skeptical that owners will keep up their end of the bargain in terms of the broader goal of fighting racism. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘Change is going to take this, change is going to take that,’” Brown told reporters over the weekend. “That’s the incrementalism idea that keeps stringing you along to make you feel like something’s going to happen, something’s going to happen. People were dying in 2014, and it’s 2020, and people are still dying the same way. They keep saying ‘reform, reform, reform,’ and ain’t nothing being reformed.”

The rush toward this agreement was guided, in part, by a need to move in unison. Unity is an essential component of team sports, but it’s not a requirement for dissidence. Teams kneeling in unity during the national anthem is no longer a form of protest; it’s a demonstration. “Unity,” in the context of sports and corporate America, often just means something that White people are comfortable with. LeBron James can believe that there’s strength in numbers, but Colin Kaepernick — whose own protest against systemic racism was first noticed four years ahead of the NBA’s strike — was willing to fight by himself. James can believe that players’ voices are muted away from the bubble, but many activists who don’t have his profile are effective regardless. Activism doesn’t require a corporate stage, and the need for unity can work against a movement when everyone doesn’t have the same interests. Any player who wanted to sit out or leave the bubble altogether to fight a broken system could have done so.

There’s power in moving independently as well as a precedent for success through that method. Consider perennial WNBA all-star Maya Moore, who has now sat out two consecutive seasons during the prime of her career in an effort to free from prison a man who she believed to be wrongly convicted. Her efforts were successful after a Missouri judge vacated Jonathan Irons’ conviction in March, and he was freed in July after serving 23 years. The only platform Moore needed was her own.

The NBA bubble was never going to be a platform for activism, but that’s no fault of the players. It’s not their job to entertain the world in pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy, then fix it by eradicating racism. They should be commended for channeling simmering frustration into action, even if the result is limited in scope. Now that they’re aware of the power they wield, hopefully they’ll use it beyond the bubble to make an impact. The NBA benefits from their satisfaction, but their interests don’t align in this area. The league claims it’s a whole new game down in Orlando, but it’s really just business as usual.