Put the names of the victims — those beautiful black lives terminated coldly, senselessly — where they cannot be ignored. Replace the team brands with poignant acknowledgments of human suffering.
WNBA star Angel McCoughtry proposed the idea of using the jersey as a potent Black Lives Matter emblem, and now it has made it onto the NBA’s table. The current thought, according to Marc Spears of the Undefeated, is to give players the option to put personalized social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys, replacing their last names. ESPN also reported the NBA and National Basketball Players Association have discussed painting “Black Lives Matter” on the sidelines of the three arenas at Walt Disney World Resort. The WNBA may do the same at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where it plans to play its entire season. In addition, WNBA players and the league are in talks about wearing warmup shirts that read “Say Her Name.”
These are all good suggestions and proof of a healthy, collaborative dialogue. But as groundbreaking as these actions would seem, they are also rather safe and predictable. If the NBA, WNBA or any other sports league truly wants to create an indelible moment — if they want to use their platform to make an impact that echoes in this moment and for the rest of time — they will take this solid idea to a higher, more uncomfortable level.
The goal shouldn’t be to do something. The goal shouldn’t be mere participation, with fancy marketing to look snazzier. To honor the players’ desire to make a statement and avoid distracting from the developing social justice movement, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver must go bigger and raise the bar for all leagues. If you’re going to traffic in the symbolic, pick the most powerful symbol available: the front of the jersey.
During the opening games of the NBA restart, when the 22 remaining teams take the court again, the opportunity exists for a heart-wrenching spectacle that would enhance all of the other messaging. It would make people think, too. Not escape. Think.
Assign a victim’s name to every team. There are so many names, sadly. If the victims’ families approve, memorialize the dead — their stories, their plundered lives, their worth — on the front of those jerseys. Make an inextricable point to assist all the people on the streets marching and chanting who cannot easily access an audience of millions: Justice is a demand, not a request.
Imagine all the names on those jerseys, and remember they would represent just a few. Many still mourn George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Many still remember Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin and Alton Sterling. These names are just the anonymous who acquired odd recognition in death because of the twisted circumstances of their demise. Most who succumb because of police lethality or casual hatred exit without attention.
The cries of “Say their names!” is an expansion of #SayHerName, which the African American Policy Forum coined in 2015 around when Bland was found hanging in a Texas jail cell. The intention is to eliminate the invisibility of these victims and combat an attitude of disposability that defines anti-black violence in the United States. If racism, police brutality and systemic oppression are too vast to grasp, look at all these names and research them. Feel your spirit sink when examining how incomprehensible these deaths were, and then drown in emotion when realizing how little a portion of America cares about lives lost unnecessarily.
Now, comprehend these words about Black Lives Matter from author, poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander from her recent essay in the New Yorker: “The phrase was apt then and now. Its coinage feels both ancestral in its knowledge and prophetic in its ongoing necessity. I know now with certainty that there will never be a moment when we will not need to say it, not in my lifetime, and not in the lifetime of the Trayvon Generation.”
This is not simply a period of racial unrest. This is a perpetual crisis, one that strips away the innocence of youth and substitutes it with fear and distrust, a dreadful American legacy passed down insidiously yet just as easily as the tale of Paul Revere.
In this fight, mere participation is not all that helpful. The full force of influence is needed.
A fundamental belief in sports is that the name on the front of the jersey matters more than the name on the back. That cliche is an instrument of control, intended to make individuals suppress their selfishness.
Without the names on the front of the jerseys, these leagues do not exist. However, without talented black lives, many of these leagues would not thrive.
About 75 percent of NBA players are black. Almost all of the league’s marquee stars are black. Over the past month, in the aftermath of a white Minneapolis police officer killing Floyd by putting his knee on his neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds, the broken hearts of players have been on display. If professional sports are truly a partnership between the talent and the franchise, then this is the moment to be the best partner possible. The allegiance is a demand, not a request.
Naturally, the relationship is complicated. Carl Suddler, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, is skeptical that the return of the NBA, despite the intentions of the players and league, can be beneficial to this racial reckoning.
“I think sports connects to two things that are very difficult to overcome in this moment: capitalism and the following of behavioral rules,” Suddler said. “Big business and the pursuit of riches limit how radical you can be. And even the NBA, which has been labeled progressive, essentially ran Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf out of the league for the stances they took. The NBA can’t get rid of LeBron [James], but there is only one LeBron. For the average player, disposability is a possibility. Can a sports league, with all its conflicts, really make a meaningful impact when they’re not inclined to sacrifice much?”
Stretch the sacrifice. Do the harder, more provocative thing. Say their names — on the front of the jersey.
On the first day of the NBA’s comeback, the Los Angeles Lakers would cease to exist because the franchise, which originated in Minneapolis, cannot stop grieving George Floyd. And they would be playing the Los Angeles Clippers, who cease to exist because the franchise is still distraught over Breonna Taylor.
Tie the most valuable things in the league — the brands, the actual franchises — to the fight. Tie the companies that advertise on those jerseys to a greater mission. Execute it properly, and the movement advances from the streets to the boardroom.
Say their names — on the front of the jersey. Not on the back. Not somewhere safe. Right there, where it can’t be missed. Turn the NBA restart into a sports version of Dave Chappelle’s “8:46” special, another form of protest entertainment.
No escape. No diversion. Look at what these athletes are wearing on their chests. Feel what’s heavy on their hearts: the burden, the fear, the loss. Maybe it will make you care.
Say their names, NBA. Do not be timid about it.