Confronting the complicated basketball bubbles

Emergent playoff star Jamal Murray pays tribute to George Floyd by displaying his likeness on his sneakers. Via Mark J. Terrill, The Associated Press

Tuesday marked the end of a complicated experiment for fans of basketball and advocates of social change alike. Breanna Stewart concluded her successful return from an Achilles injury to the tune of a second WNBA championship, quickly cementing herself in the pantheon of 21st century athletic superheroes. Likewise, LeBron James continued his tour-de-force against Father Time, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 4-2 win over the Miami Heat in a tightly contested NBA Finals matchup. It actualized all that basketball fans had hoped for: a fiercely competitive, COVID-free, highly televised return of the sport. 

But police continue to kill Black Americans at an alarming rate. 

From interviews to jerseys, #SayHerName was presented loudly and consistently throughout the NBA and WNBA bubbles alike, and the continued press conference protests reminded us that, while basketball was fun, the hearts of these predominantly Black athletes remained heavy. 

Breonna Taylor’s murderer still has not been rightfully persecuted. Her killers escaped with, at most, a Wanton Endangerment charge, reveling in the white supremacy inherent in the American judicial system. 

But Taylor’s name was not only used for activist purposes. While athletes’ efforts prompted an increase in racial justice advocacy, that increase coincided with an uptick in marketing and branding for the companies that wanted so desperately to profit off these young Black players. Typical conference protests by Sue Bird or LeBron James garnered tens of thousands of shares—and thus, in a difficult and heartbreaking sense, engaged in and fueled the capitalist machine that ultimately drives the racism in this country. 

Think of Jamal Murray’s shoes, which mourned the deaths of both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by depicting their faces. It was an incredibly touching tribute from an athlete who was experiencing perhaps the most exciting moment of his young life, turning heads with his playoff performance but still taking the time to stand up for what was right. Yet it was also an Adidas advertisement, because as prevalent as Floyd and Taylor’s faces were across Murray’s shoes, so were those dastardly three stripes. Reminding us that, one way or another, capitalism and the white ghosts that rule over it still infiltrate every aspect of our livelihood. After all, it was a sickening lust for profit rooted in capitalism coupled with a disregard for humanity that landed Plymouth Rock on so many enslaved individuals.

This is the duality that haunts IMG Academy and the Disney World campus: the internal battle that Black athletes playing for white owners must endure in their pursuit for generational wealth, while simultaneously striving to end the systemic and economic violence that plagues so many of their communities. 

Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people—a tool that comforted oppressed folk but ultimately limited the potential for revolution, for radical change. Yet, as I continued to invest myself in these playoff games, I could not help but wonder what Marx may have made of this frustrating duality. The NBA bubble was a platform that players like Jamal Murray hoped would provide motivation for social change, but did more to satisfy the craving of white sports fans bothered by the stoppage of sports and conversations of race infiltrating their daily lives. In other words, when the games resumed and the conversations began to subside, the fans went back to getting their fix. 

I cannot contend however, that the cancellation of the season—as athletes like Kyrie Irving advocated for, in order to keep the national focus squarely on fighting police brutality and racial injustice—would have been the true solution. Radical change is not so simple, and overcoming this activism-commercialism duality present within the capitalist machine is also not straightforward. 

Take Ed Davis for example, the Utah Jazz forward who was loud in his critique of athletes like Irving and Dwight Howard prior to the bubble’s opening: “It’s easy for Dwight Howard to say that we don’t need to play when he’s in Atlanta in his $20 million mansion. But there are other guys on the rosters who need this money to provide for whoever they’re taking care of.” There’s a reason Davis is so well-respected within NBA circles—his criticism isn’t just well-founded, but also speaks to the vast socio-economic disparities that exist even in a clique as small as the NBA. 

See, it’s easy to talk about radical change and the dismantling of a capitalist structure, but taking away opportunities for Black athletes to create generational wealth and help redevelop their communities is perhaps as reprehensible as any other outcome. 

A truly correct answer in this conversation does not exist. But one thing is clear: it is not on those who are neither Black nor professional athletes to decide the best course of action for those who devote their lives to grueling travel schedules, lonely hotel nights and constant criticism in an effort to put a deafening dent in the historical oppression that their families have faced. Individuals who have no understanding of the systemic oppression that these athletes go through choosing to place them under an involuntary microscope without the understanding that it is the oppressor who needs to be placed under that same microscope, torched by the sun like ants on a hot summer day. 

Accordingly, it is not and has never been my place to critique the activism of those who battle oppressions I could never understand. But our engagement with sports cannot continue to be so uninvolved; while acknowledging the systemic racism present in professional sports has not yet become routine, sports’ place as the opium of the people can no longer stand if racial justice is to become a reality. 

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