Francis regularly hosts bishops, educators and charitable workers, but it is far less common for him to sit down with athletes. Notably, the pope in September elected not to meet with a far different American group coming through Rome — a delegation led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after Pompeo infuriated Vatican officials by criticizing the church’s diplomacy with China.
The Vatican, as is customary, did not provide details on the nature of the meeting with the athletes, other than to say that Francis met with the group.
According to the National Basketball Players Association, a Vatican official had reached out to set up the meeting. Three players union executives met with the pope, as did players Kyle Korver, Sterling Brown, Marco Belinelli, Anthony Tolliver and Jonathan Isaac. The meeting came together hastily, with the league opening training camps next week: Players flew from the United States on Sunday night and met with the pope hours after touching down in Rome.
A Vatican Media photo of the meeting, which took place in the papal library, showed that neither Francis nor the visitors were wearing masks. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the pope has eschewed mask-wearing protocols — and apparently asked visitors to do the same. Even people who have arrived at the Vatican wearing masks remove them when meeting with the pontiff, in a practice that has perplexed outsiders and caused concern among some Vatican officials.
In a statement after the meeting, the players association said the athletes who met with Francis had a chance to “discuss their individual and collective efforts addressing social and economic injustice and inequality occurring in their communities.”
Their meeting comes in the wake of an extraordinary season that was paused because of the emerging pandemic and then restarted in a Disney World campus bubble — where players’ jerseys had social justice slogans and the court was painted with the words, “Black Lives Matter.”
Brown and Korver were members last season of the Milwaukee Bucks, who triggered a protest that spilled across the league — and then into other sports — when the team decided to sit out a postseason game after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. Brown has also been outspoken about his own encounter with police, a 2018 late-night incident outside a Walgreens pharmacy during which he was Tasered after parking illegally across two handicapped spots. He recently agreed to a $750,000 lawsuit settlement with the Milwaukee police.
“We are extremely honored to have had this opportunity to come to the Vatican and share our experiences with Pope Francis,” Korver said in the players association statement. “His openness and eagerness to discuss these issues was inspiring and a reminder that our work has had a global impact and must continue moving forward.”
The executive director of the players union, Michele Roberts, said the meeting “validates” the power of the players’ voices.
“That one of the most influential leaders in the world sought to have a conversation with them demonstrates the influence of their platforms,” she said.
Francis has spoken occasionally about divisions and police violence in the United States. In early June, after the police killing of George Floyd, Francis said he felt “great concern” about the “disturbing social unrest in America.” He called Floyd’s killing “tragic.”
“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life,” Francis said.
In a forthcoming book by the papal biographer Austen Ivereigh, Francis comments further on Floyd and the protests that erupted after his death, according to America magazine, saying that people who took to the street were “united by a healthy indignation.”