“It’s not an athlete’s job to speak out,” the Philadelphia 76ers coach, Doc Rivers—himself a former NBA point guard—said at a press conference on Tuesday. “It’s no one’s job to speak out. It’s our responsibility, if we want to make it that. You should speak out.”
Wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan call your senators, Rivers urged support for the justice-in-policing bill, which the House of Representatives passed in March. The legislation would ban choke holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, lower a legal barrier to prosecuting police misconduct, and establish a national database of police misconduct. The NBA is the first major professional sports league to champion the bill. That stance isn’t surprising. The NBA has received high marks for the diversity among its management and coaching ranks; 74 percent of NBA players are Black; and many of those players—including the league’s biggest star, LeBron James—have spoken out against police brutality, which disproportionately kills Black people.
People who are affected by politics should be active in it, argued Rivers, one of two coaches in the Social Justice Coalition, which the NBA created in November. “I know one thing: Politics are involved in us every day,” Rivers said. “Everything you do, there’s been some kind of political bill in your life. And I always tell everyone, ‘Well, then you should be involved in it.’”
Not everyone sees the value in athletes leveraging their power to bring awareness to worthwhile causes. Conservative commentators have argued that social-justice messaging is ruining sports. Such claims are dubious. But even if players’ outspokenness were truly hurting ratings, players have been determined to use their voice no matter what.
Over the past year, many athletes participated in the nationwide protests sparked by Floyd’s death. After Jacob Blake, another Black man, was shot multiple times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the NBA and the WNBA decided not to play, which ignited boycotts in other sports. After Kelly Loeffler, then a U.S. senator from Georgia and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, made dismissive remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, players in the league banded together to oust her from both positions of power. They helped anoint Raphael Warnock as the best candidate to beat her in the general election—which he did, delivering the Senate to the Democrats—and their pressure forced Loeffler to sell her stake in the Dream.
WNBA players weren’t strangers to speaking out on matters of justice. Back in 2016, months before the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, the Minnesota Lynx wore T-shirts during a warm-up honoring Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men who were killed by police. Four members of the Minneapolis police department who worked security at Lynx games walked off their post in response. After Floyd’s death, WNBA players—who also created the Say Her Name campaign last year in honor of Breonna Taylor, who was shot by Louisville police officers who entered her home on a no-knock warrant—enjoyed much broader support for their activism, especially from their male colleagues.
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