How the NBA can restart a movement that seems to have hit a temporary roadblock

Kyrie Irving’s stated belief that basketball would overtake the emotion, fear and anger of this new movement against social injustice has been validated by the lull the nation appears to be at, perhaps a moment of fatigue.

The raw feelings that led to marches or even rage haven’t been as visible. The calling of “today’s a good day to arrest Breonna Taylor’s murderers” has been slightly muted on social media, almost replaced by the discussion of the noose left for Bubba Wallace that wasn’t at a NASCAR race over the weekend.

The silence illustrates the opportunity the NBA has in the coming weeks, to claim the world’s attention in ways very few athletes can. The players have a social currency with the public no other professional sport can provide, and thus a responsibility to capture minds should they choose.

The NBA can restart a movement that seems to have hit a temporary roadblock.

Even the NASCAR discussion has revealed the limitations of its potential effects, since Wallace has been thrust into the national spotlight in ways LeBron James and other NBA players have been dancing in for decades.

In the days between the revelation of the noose in Wallace’s garage and the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, NBA players rallied around the driver in support. Even if they barely knew his name before that day, the imagery of a noose is chilling.

Their amplified voices have the power to use that noose as a weapon for attention elsewhere. Black men in California, Georgia, New York, Oregon and Texas were found hanging from trees, their deaths ruled as suicides and filed away by the authorities, but under heavy suspicion, causing some cases to be re-examined. 

Members of the Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics basketball teams hold a rally to mark the liberation of slavery on June 19, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images)

The power they have in perhaps calling for further scrutiny and investigations is immeasurable, being able to take an unfortunate moment with Wallace into a new discussion with great influence.

Their power is rooted in their athletic excellence, that excellence the greatest leverage as the NBA desperately wants to claim revenue stolen by the COVID-19 pandemic

Sitting out under the guise of racism discounts the 400-year head start it has, and if anyone needs a reminder, the silent opposition came out in full force when the FBI investigation revealed no foul play regarding Wallace.

The players have an ally in commissioner Adam Silver, who of course wants to restore money to the team owners in this return-to-play plan. But he wants to be on the right side of history and is willing to aid the players in their wishes to move things forward.

He understands, at the very least, the players are taking a level of health risk headed into the Florida bubble. That grants them an amount of collective power we haven’t seen flexed since LeBron’s “The Decision” 10 years ago.

Even some of the so-called dissension amongst the players isn’t as bad as presented. Every movement has differing agendas, quirks and inconsistencies, but it can still produce a desired outcome. The players who elect not to go inside the bubble have an opportunity of their own, the ability to connect with the grassroots leaders who don’t have the megaphone but the fuel and energy necessary to continue this fight.

The evidence was clear early on, when streets burned and hearts ignored the coronavirus threat to march together in dozens of American cities. The anger and fearlessness was so palpable, many who vehemently stood against Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest suddenly came to a realization it had nothing to do with a flag, but everything to do with lifeless bodies in the streets and an eight-minute, 46-second act that the nation couldn’t turn away from.

And eyes will shift to Disney World when the NBA restarts, where Black exceptionalism will be on full display. Exceptionalism can be so captivating, even detractors often fixate on these charismatic figures who’ll own more than a moment of your time.

Just as Ali and Russell and Smith and Carlos were faces and mouthpieces, they were aided by those on the ground who connected the dots. Perfection wasn’t necessary, but pure intentions were.

It doesn’t make someone like Irving wrong, at least not his intentions. This shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, especially as some players are expected to measure risks and morals against the reward, and conclude playing isn’t worth what will sit on their consciences afterward.

Believing some will take the first chance to turn away from the message isn’t false; there will be plenty who change the channel — the ones who can never be won over.

But if the movement is as flexible and pliable as it needs to be, how many channels must one change to avoid messaging on issues that matter: police brutality, everywhere; those from Chicago and New York know about real estate redlining; big urban cities see uneven hiring practices.

So many decision-makers have put the cookie-cutter statements about standing against racism without being held accountable for their own actions. Satisfied with giving employees Juneteenth off as a show of support overshadows true commitment to the greater good.

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson, a friend of George Floyd's, speaks during a rally in front of the Hennepin County Government Center on June 11, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

So many statues of racists torn down, but the incentive structures of racism are still standing tall. It’s no criticism to note the slowed pace, because it doesn’t indicate satisfaction.

Movements are rarely linear. There are starts and stops and restarts and even moments in which enemies have their day to slow the momentum. And if the movement is stuck on the side of the road, the NBA’s return could give it a much-needed boost rather than serving as an unnecessary distraction.

The players command attention that can leverage its sponsors into inspiring true legislation as the movement morphs from one form to the next while not forgetting the origins.

The beauty of this lies in the unexpected nature of its roots, a spontaneous burst of emotion from unexpected allies accompanied by years-long frustration by Black folks who felt ignored amid obvious evidence.

In August, the playoffs are slated to begin in Orlando.

It’s a reminder of how strategic this can be.

Very few playoff games can be won off emotion and rage alone. It takes timing, savvy and direction to strike at precisely the right time, especially when fighting through the lulls.

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