NBA TV Canada host sees 2020 season of basketball as 'rising of human consciousness'
The 2020 NBA finals between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers may look and feel different than previous championships.
The usually raucous stadiums are empty, for one, with videos of virtual fans hovering in the background. The teams are all playing in one place, dubbed the NBA Bubble, in Orlando, Fla. And the players have social justice slogans where their names should be on their jerseys, saying phrases like "Black Lives Matter," "Vote," "Love Us," and "How Many More."
Once the National Basketball Association delayed the 2020 basketball season, they quickly entered negotiations with the players' union to facilitate playing basketball in a pandemic. However, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States, these eventually grew to include the social justice focus of the players.
The new jerseys — accompanied by a three-day strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake — represent a change in how these athletes are thinking about their ability to talk about racism and police violence in North America, according to Akil Augustine, host of the Toronto Raptors' Jurassic Park fan zone.
"This is the rising of human consciousness," Augustine said to Tapestry host Mary Hynes.
"I think the younger people who are coming of age now are calling into question a lot of the ways that we ourselves and our parents and our predecessors have conducted ourselves."
NBA aligns itself with protestors
Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry replaced his name with "Education Reform". His teammate Serge Ibaka chose "Respectez Biso," which means "respect us" in Congolese French. Many players picked "Black Lives Matter" or "Say Their Names."
The decision to participate in this on-court activism was not unanimous among the players — Los Angeles Clippers' Kawaii Leonard and Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James declined to add a slogan to their jerseys, for instance.
However, Augustine said that, on the whole, the desire to respond to current events comes from the fact that the players are predominantly Black men who want to have their experience represented on the court.
Chris Paul, who plays for the Oklahoma Thunder, told SB Nation following the strike: "We're all hurt. We're tired of seeing the same thing over and over again and everybody expecting us to be OK, just because we get paid great money. We're human. We have real feelings."
A protest with some catches
The NBA players' social justice actions this season weren't without compromises.
The list of jersey slogans had to be approved by the NBA, which meant many statements were discarded. Toronto Raptor Norm Powell, who eventually chose "Black Lives Matter" for his jersey, had hoped to replace his name with "Am I Next?"
"We've got a lot of guys in this league that ... have been using their voice through this time and we're really excited about the whole thing," Powell told the Canadian Press.
"I was really upset about ... how we're really limited."
The players' strike in August meanwhile resulted in a few victories.
The NBA agreed to form a social justice coalition between players, coaches and owners, that will meet to discuss issues related to criminal justice reform and voting rights. Some basketball stadiums have also agreed to become voting centres in the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Augustine noted that the ultimate limitation on these protests comes from the players' voices being tied to their sport. Stars only have influence while they have a platform from to speak out, such as post-game interviews. So they can't strike indefinitely.
"An actual protest is an act of resistance. It's probably not going to be supported by the powers that be or whoever's attention you're trying to get. So I don't think we should ever look for [official] approval of protest actions," Augustine said.
Future of basketball
One contingent of basketball viewers has criticized the whole push towards social justice within the sport. Conservative commentator and Fox News host Laura Ingraham said in 2018 said that Lakers' LeBron James should "shut up and dribble," in response to his years-long activism.
I don't understand why you would ask anybody who's in a society not to speak on the society. It's a weird double standard.-Akil Augustine
Augustine believes it is hypocritical to demand that players separate their personal identities from the game and what they believe in.
"I've never seen someone tell a lawyer he shouldn't be concerned with how his child is being educated. Or tell a doctor he shouldn't be concerned with the new incoming tax code," said Augustine.
"So I don't understand why you would ask anybody who's in a society not to speak on the society. It's a weird double standard."
Augustine also added that it's important for NBA players like James or the Raptors' Fred VanVleet to take a stand. VanVleet initially suggested he wouldn't return to play after Blake's death in August in protest. High profile players such as these are much more visible than average citizens and they can afford to take a temporary loss in income in service to something they believe in.
"It's not for the guy working at Walmart to take the day off to push racial justice. He's not in a position to. But LeBron James, yeah, he can lose a couple bucks, he can take days off, he can get the platform to say things," said Augustine.
"If Joe down at the Superstore takes the day off, no cameras are coming into his face to ask him about why."
Augustine described the movement for social justice among NBA players as being still in its infancy. However, as players continue to get more organized about what they want to see from the NBA and how they can make change, and as basketball gets more popular around the world, he believes the players' power will grow.
"People started taking [COVID-19] seriously when the NBA shut down. And they started taking the social justice battle seriously when the NBA went on protest," said Augustine.
Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.