Why play? With dueling potentially century-defining events — the novel coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter equality effort — the quandary could not be more intricate. Not even $1 billion in combined player salary can justify the health risk. But when it comes to the worth of leveraging America’s sports obsession to further a cardinal cause, it would be irresponsible for these aware and gifted athletes not to bring their superpowers to the fight.
No basketball, Dwight Howard said initially, until we get things resolved. Things such as police brutality and systemic racism? Resolved?
Well, rest in peace, basketball.
Later, Howard wisely clarified his stance. His youth and passion exemplify some of the most impressive aspects of this protest. But perspective about the stamina required to make a difference must be emphasized, too.
African Americans have sought sustainable progress in these areas for our entire existence in this country, yet here we are, burning down hatred in what was once arrogantly dubbed a post-racial era, still having to justify the perceived audacity of the basic claim that we matter. Howard talked of resolution. Others keep using the phrase “eradicate racism” as if it just requires a scientist and a little more emphasis.
For more than 400 years, we have been stuck on matter.
It is a wonderful and unselfish sentiment that some NBA players, with so much money at stake, are worried their return to action will be a distraction. It is also a rather facile concern, a frustratingly binary way to think. There are more options than play and distract or don’t play and help. Players can do both and so much more. With NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as a proven ally and the league desperate to salvage revenue, the players possess a level of control that past athlete activists couldn’t dare to imagine.
This is a different kind of fight because the support seems heftier and more diverse than ever. Black skepticism is only natural. How much of this indicates hearts are changing? How much of it is white guilt, a selfish emotion? How much of it is the pandemic putting us in isolation and stripping our lives of diversion?
Most important of all, how much of it can last?
This is where sports can be useful as a symbol and an inspiration. The notion of the NBA’s return being a momentum-killing distraction creates an assumption that the nation will be in the same place in six weeks as it is now, with daily protests, consistent dialogue and unrelenting pressure to tear down every tangible sign of racism that supporters of this budding movement can see. But a mass audience, no matter how determined, has seldom displayed such endurance.
There will be a plateau. There will be waves to this fight. Opposition will grow stronger. And motivation is always essential to create new energy for the pursuit.
James Baldwin, the great writer and intellectual, once provided his own lyrical twist to a concept that many philosophers have expressed. “People cannot bear too much reality,” he said. “They need fantasy, in order to survive.”
Sports do not just distract. They have the ability to captivate, to hold attention. Even as people look to sports for the fantasy of escapism, athletes can send messages while they compete that are enriching — and beneficial to — an equality mission instead of succumbing to the triviality of the game they’re playing.
There’s a duality to sports that the NBA must recognize. Basketball, while enjoyable and a generator of passion, is just an instrument. The people who play basketball at the NBA level — LeBron James and the rest of this mesmerizing, compelling cast — have an ability to stay with you.
Distraction is everywhere. Even when you’re doing the thing that means the most to you, can you continue without interruption for an entire day? The brain does not work that way. Even masters of mindfulness know there are limits to task persistence.
If the NBA doesn’t return because it wants to avoid being a distraction, then another distraction will fill the void, one that might not care as much about social justice. In addition, those who are so easily diverted aren’t the people you want fighting on your side anyway. Golfer Tom Kite said it best: “You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.”
Despite the objections of some players, an agreement between the league and the National Basketball Players Association is already in place. Unless the coronavirus makes it impossible, the sport is scheduled to return July 30 in a bubble environment at Disney World. The question now isn’t really whether the NBA should return. The focus should be on how it comes back.
That is where players must both hold the league accountable and partner with it. Here is what’s at stake: the chance to be at the forefront of testing the elasticity of this moment.
“It’s about the moment,” Wizards guard John Wall said, trying to explain the players’ conflict. “What are we going to do in this moment? Don’t let it go away. I never thought I would be experiencing this. None of us did.”
Former NBA player Stephen Jackson has assumed a leadership role in the protests since the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, his longtime friend and a man he called “Twin” because of their resemblance. He remains skeptical about the positive impact of the NBA returning — of any big corporation living up to its stated desire to get involved — and would rather keep the focus and energy in the streets.
“I’ve seen the T-shirts,” Jackson said during an Instagram chat with friend and former NBA player Matt Barnes. “I’ve seen the little ads. That [expletive] don’t work. And then it’s always watered down.
“Where we’re at right now, we got here off raw emotion. What they did in Minnesota, that was real pain. That was real blood. That was real feeling. They were tired because my brother wasn’t the only person that they saw get killed out there.”
You cannot disagree with Jackson’s passion and credibility. But it’s not an either/or proposition. To win — or to even stand a chance at merely puncturing systemic racism — it will take an effort as vast, intricate and everlasting as racism itself. There must be room for soldiers and diplomats, for allies with the purist intentions and mercenaries, for radicals and moderates.
Just the same, this moment can’t be kept in a box labeled fragile and protected from distraction. For it to become a true and enduring movement, it must stretch. It must spread. It must tolerate some dilution of its rawness. It must evolve into something grand and ingrained.
That’s difficult to accept. You want to stay in this moment because it’s precious to have this much interest in a black cause. But you need a bigger army. You need more influence. And sports is one of many conduits to this kind of expansion. If the players have it in them, they should use their power, both internally and externally, to provide an example of how protest and unrest can be taken to a bigger stage.
“As a Lakers fan, I want basketball back,” said Carl Suddler, an assistant professor of history at Emory University who wrote the book “Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York.” “As a black man, I’m not sure I care."
There’s a lot to think about, a lot there to be considered. The tension of what it means to put the jersey on and what it means to keep it off, if we want to get really philosophical about it, is something of a sports version of W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness.
Such a thought adds layers to James’s mantra of “More Than An Athlete.” In times of turmoil, the star black athlete often has to make these warring decisions about competition and greater impact. And when he chooses to commit to the bigger fight, it only intensifies the pressure to succeed on the field while doing so.
Strip away all complexity, and the struggle remains an issue of dehumanization. What does it take to be seen as a person, as worthy of consideration at our most vulnerable moments? It is mortifying to have to ask the question. It is enraging to be aware of our disposability.
But when King James has on that uniform, no one can deny his humanity, just as no one could ignore Muhammad Ali sending his black-is-beautiful message when he screamed about how pretty he was. Just as no one could evade the truth about the brilliance of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and every other trailblazer.
The circumstances of the current situation are different, close to unprecedented. But the method for athlete activism endures. Stay excellent. Stay conscious. Stay engaged. In the exhausting pursuit of equality, those virtues rise above distraction.
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