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NBA players shouldn’t be shouldering all that’s now expected of them

While lauding the players’ amplified voices and admirable efforts, we shouldn’t ignore the greater forces that brought us here, as well as the role we can all play.

2020 NBA Restart -Milwaukee Bucks Statement Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In non-Spurs news, which encapsulates essentially all sporting news these days, the NBA playoffs are set to resume on Saturday after the Milwaukee Bucks’ impromptu strike and the events and conversations that followed. Sparked by the brutalization of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the pause challenged the players, union leadership and the league to reconcile business needs with a collective drive to bring change to issues of systemic racism and police violence. The reports that reaching a consensus proved contentious shouldn’t be all that surprising given the stakes.

All of this is largely unprecedented, concurrent with an unprecedented health crisis that delayed and displaced the NBA postseason and a social crisis that had drawn the full attention of much of the predominantly black league before its hiatus. As they reach the halfway point of this quartered experiment, it’s natural that another incident of appalling police brutality would prompt some reflection of purpose and whether they’re pushing the national conversation in the manner they hoped.

Some of that discourse has taken on familiar permutations, with the usual parties opposing either athletes’ exercising their voice or disagreeing with the merit of their social causes, a preset response in their drafts before they can even process the personal experience shared with them. Such is our joyous cultural divide.

Occasionally these arguments are designed to divert the conversation: Look at the replies of any tweet on the topic and you’ll see accounts challenging the NBA—and, primarily its players—relative silence on China’s Uighur camps or Hong Kong’s conflict, objectively valid concerns that, if the person posing them was a) acting in good faith and b) truly cared about the causes, would be posing to their senators and congresspersons. They also assume the position that for a cause to be worthy, its champions must pass a wider purity test. (I’ll just say if you take issue with the international policy stances of your favorite professional athletes, you should be sure you know what your country is up to)

Even those who agree with the players’ stances are prone to logic traps. Early on I found myself questioning whether or not their collective efforts were being channeled in the best way and wondering what long-term good it may all do in the end, as if this was a position they elected—or were elected—to be in. By doing so we absolve ourselves of the role we can play in furthering social justice, as well as the leaders and institutions that have continued to hold it back. An ESPN article published on Friday called “What Experts Say NBA Players Should Do With This Power” asked a number of powerful people of soft and/or political influencer (including—astoundingly—the former chair of the DNC, Donna Brazile) what these professional entertainers must do to enact the kind of change that they as anointed leaders could’ve done. That the league and its players are in a unique position to exert influence is probably true, and we should all be hopeful of the possibilities, but the responsibility they’ve taken on reflects the country’s failures that have led us here.

Criticisms of the players’ methods abound. Some question the effectiveness of going on strike and jeopardizing their platform; others question the motives of returning to play; most ignore the human element behind black workers feeling mentally uncomfortable with continuing to entertain a country that has historically put their capital utility over their humanity—and our obsession with them maximizing this moment only doubles down on that latter point.

What all of these threads have in common are the outsize expectations thrust onto a small group of civilians due to a combination of their visibility, wealth, and, for a large majority of them, their blackness. There are after all roughly 450 NBA players, and less than 200 in Orlando right now. Most, but not all, are millionaires and, for some context, a 2019 Forbes article estimated there to be 18.6 million millionaires in the United States. It’s always fair game to push the wealthy and influential to drive more social good than others, but it’s another thing entirely to expect black athletes to be their own saviors.