Class Consciousness and the Fight for Civil Rights in the NBA

By Frank Nawrot, Edited by R.E. Rule

“[Racism] is a product of the system and…is the intention of the way this system was built…in order for things to change…there needs to be some dismantling of how things are currently.”

-Malika Andrews, ESPN reporter on Get Up

The shutdown of the NBA season on March 11th was the first highly-publicized domino to fall in the disturbing 2020 timeline. Two days later, police murdered Breonna Taylor and the COVID-19 crisis was declared a pandemic by the US government. Because the NBA was the first professional sports league in the US to shut down and restart during the pandemic, a great deal of attention was paid to what players and organizations did and said in response to the pandemic and the subsequent high-profile racist murders and legal decisions of 2020. In addition to the death of Taylor, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd sparked outrage among pro basketball players, coaches, and commentators.

Lebron James after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery said:

“We’re literally hunted EVERYDAY/EVERYTIME we step foot outside the comfort of our homes! Can’t even go for a damn jog man! Like WTF man are you kidding me?!?!?!?!?!?…”

Some may wonder, justifiably, “why should I care what professional basketball players and sports commentators have to say?” Why should workers care? When someone like Lebron James speaks, billions of people listen. It can be easy for leftists to ignore the pleas and opinions of millionaire athletes. However, for class conscious workers, any opportunity to illuminate cracks in the capitalist order should be seized. It is easy to ignore the pleas and opinions of millionaire athletes, but we must remember that a large number of these players come from humble backgrounds and earned their extraordinary wealth, in large part, by laboring for the benefit of capitalists. Additionally, the most talented WNBA players make a good living only by the standards of working people (low six-figure annual contracts). These realities should not be leveraged to excuse the hoarding of wealth or other wicked actions of pro athletes. But, someone with working-class roots may be more likely to denounce pillars of capitalism, like racism and sexism, even if they do not see the forest for the trees.

Professional athletes who publicly push back against bigotry are role models to countless sports fans and youth. Because there is a paucity of left-wing role models whose voices are easily heard (and a nauseating plethora of right-wing “role models”), leftists should celebrate the anti-racist efforts of pro athletes.

The brutality of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, 2020 made his death particularly disturbing. The Washington D.C. WNBA and NBA teams (Mystics and Wizards, respectively) released a joint statement on racial injustice following Floyd’s death:

“The recent senseless race-driven murders that have gripped our nation are horrific. We are devastated, hurt, and enraged! …it’s time we take a stand and prevail…We stand against any and all injustice, prejudice, discrimination, police brutality and racism.”

NBA star Steph Curry shared an image of the monster who crushed George Floyd’s neck. Part of his caption read: “George was murdered. George wasn’t human to that cop that slowly and purposefully took his life away.”

Players and coaches from the WNBA and collegiate women’s basketball brought attention to Ahmaud Arbery’s murder by participating in a nationwide event, “Run for Maud.”

Dawn Staley, head coach of women’s basketball at University of South Carolina:

“Walked 2.23 miles x 2 for you #AhmaudAubrey because someone snatched your ability to do it for yourself.  Happy birthday!  May God give your family the strength to endure each day forward…”

Maya Moore, who “has been called the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball,” is a true role model; she speaks regularly on how the legal system in the US is racist, but, more importantly, she takes action. Two years ago, Moore stepped away from her livelihood as a WNBA star and devoted herself to freeing a man who sat in prison for over two decades for a crime he did not commit. There is no doubt that Moore’s actions inspired others. 

“[Maya Moore] warrants strong consideration for athlete of the century.”

-Stephen A. Smith, ESPN basketball analyst and NBA insider on First Take

“She [Moore] led by example…She set the bar…She made me look in the mirror…she made me say [to myself]: ‘Are you doing enough out here in the community and standing for what’s right?’”

-Kendrick Perkins, former NBA champion on The Jump

On the day the world learned that there would be no justice for Breonna Taylor, the WNBA released a statement: “The WNBA devoted the 2020 season to the fight against systemic racism and police brutality with a focus on women victims. Today’s disappointing outcome in the Breonna Taylor case shows us that we must continue the fight.”

Motivated by the death of Taylor, Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell made bold statements during the NBA restart-season. On the back of his jersey read: “SAY HER NAME.” During a post-game interview, Mitchell showed off his bulletproof vest to reporter Taylor Rooks. The vest was emblazoned with the words “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance.” Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray wore shoes with images of raised fists and portraits of Taylor and George Floyd.

Among the most significant events during the restart of the NBA and WNBA 2020 seasons, was the wildcat strike following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The strike (incorrectly labeled a boycott by many in the media) was led by the Milwaukee Bucks. The night the strike began, a players-only meeting was held during which the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers voted to strike indefinitely. The strike began in the middle of the week of August 24, play resumed the following weekend. No concrete demands were made nor was anything promised by NBA owners or administration, beyond the persistent claims of devotion to bringing attention to social injustices and racial inequality. The anger of NBA players preceding and during the strike was palpable; that nothing came of that anger is a testament to the absence of an anti-capitalist framework from which the players could formulate plans of action.

“Do we actually give a fuck about what’s going on? Or is it just cool to wear ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a t-shirt? Is that really doing anything? Would it be nice—in a perfect world—we all say we’re not playing and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks…puts pressure on the district’s attorney office…and governors and politicians to make real change and get some justice? At the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose. We talk about it every day, but it just feels like a big pacifier at this point…

-Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors star during presser

The strike was a dramatic moment in an already unusual NBA season. Going on strike models the hidden power a workforce has over its employer. NBA players, even the most unskilled, are among the wealthiest people in the world. Despite this, their relationship to their employers is powerfully illustrative of the capitalist economy. Players and commentators alike openly refer to the billionaires who purchase NBA franchises as “owners,” and the wealth of most owners dwarfs that of many NBA stars.

These mostly white billionaires and millionaires “own” teams of primarily black men whose immense physical and mental dedication are exploited until their bodies are too worn to compete with younger players. There is a hierarchy of coaching staff and management to mediate and optimize the appropriation of wealth generated by the players. Folks who enjoy the entertainment provided by professional athletes also consume a great deal of coverage from news outlets and journalists that illuminate the hierarchy within sports organizations. They tune in to see who the next general manager will be, to hear the insider scoop on who the next head coach of their favorite team will be, etc. For most of these fans, their places of work operate in exactly the same way, but the hidden-in-plain-sight connection is obscured by a lifetime of capitalist education and media. 

The elephant in the room is the appropriation of identity politics by corporations and pro sports leagues to pacify the oppressed of the world. Class-conscious workers should push and demand that attention be brought to class politics. It is the rich of our world and the subjugation of the working-class that perpetuates the type of bigotry that the NBA and its corporate sponsors claim to care so much about ending. At this time, most working-class folks are not class-conscious, or, if they are, they are without the tools and knowledge necessary for putting an end to wage-slavery. Anti-capitalists must seize every opportunity to speak with our fellow workers and young people, especially those who are the most oppressed and scorned, about the root of their plight and the connections between the struggles of particular people, like people of color, and the class struggle. It is better to find catalysts for sowing anti-capitalist sentiment among our friends, family, and co-workers than scoff at someone like Lebron James for not calling for a socialist revolution.

Categories: Sports, U.S. News

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