When other professional sports leagues struggled with how to speak out about current social and cultural narratives, they settled on sending out tweets or press releases. The National Basketball Association (NBA) painted Black Lives Matter on their court. And that was just the beginning of a public narrative that will continue to be a major media PR and consumer PR topic for professional sports.
In the NBA, both coaches and players are taking advantage of their high-profile public positions to make socio-political statements. These include Miami Heat center bam Adebayo, who recently said, “What happened to Breonna Taylor could have happened to me because of the color of our skin… We want people to understand that black lives do matter. We’re tired of seeing our brothers and sisters dying at the hand of police brutality for no reason… We just want to be equal, that’s all…”
The Associated Press quoted New Orleans guard JJ Redick saying, “I know a lot of guys have been very outspoken about Breonna Taylor and about calling attention to Daniel Cameron and what he needs to do to bring her killers to justice. I think that’s been great. The messaging on shirts, the court, it’s all great… I know, I think I’m most proud of the guys who have stepped up and started taking action…”
While individual players continue to speak out, it’s unclear what teams will do as games resume in the COVID-interrupted NBA season. Some speculate that there will be on-court demonstrations, and others believe that will be kept to press conferences and outside of game situations. Whatever the case happens to be, it’s clear that the NBA as a whole has taken a strong stance on this divisive political issue.
Some of the league’s most prominent figures, including LeBron James and Clippers coach Doc Rivers, have used press appearances to talk about the issues being raised by BLM protesters. During a post-scrimmage interview, James told people to vote in November, in the context of his many previous statements about socio-political issues. Rivers directly challenged counter-narratives about the ongoing protests:
“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message…” River said, “Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that… How about being real?”
Some players have opted to wear messages on their jerseys, something the league says it will allow. Mostly, these are single words, left up to interpretation, though the context is clear. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was a bit more circumspect during an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America. When asked about the league’s public stand, Silver said, “I respect peaceful protest…”
And James? He said he wouldn’t be wearing a message on his uniform. Instead, he will speak his message clearly and show it by his actions, including donations to specific social justice organizations.
Regardless of how they choose to protest, it’s clear that this season, the protest will be an out-front narrative for the NBA and its players. The response may inform how other leagues handle this question in the future.