The NBA returns, but its racial justice messaging does not

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says the NBA will largely leave the racial justice messaging off the court this season.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver says the NBA will largely leave the racial justice messaging off the court this season.
Image: Getty Images

The following is from something I wrote all the way back inAugust.

“Entire teams are kneeling during the anthem. The NCAA is going to allow players to wear patches on their uniforms for racial justice, while the same will take place in the NFL on helmet decals. Black Lives Matter banners have been raised in places like Boston, while it’s been plastered all over NBA and WNBA courts.

It’s truly been a moment.

But, at some point, the unified kneeling will stop. The banners will come down. The stickers and decals will go away. And basketball courts will stop looking like hardwood billboards.”

When the NBA season starts on Tuesday night, things won’t look the way they did in the bubble. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Because as “progressive” as people think the NBA is, they were never going to keep “Black Lives Matter” on their courts outside of playing at Disney during a global pandemic.

“I would say, in terms of the messages you see on the court, on the jerseys, this was an extraordinary moment in time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN in October. “When we began the discussions with the players and what we all lived through this summer. My sense is there will be somewhat a return to normalcy. That message will largely be left to be delivered off the floor. And I understand those people who are saying, ‘I’m on your side, but I want to watch a basketball game.’”


It’s kind of hard to take the NBA seriously when the commissioner says things like that. Because those people who are “on your side but want to watch a basketball game” are white. And the players they’re watching are overwhelmingly Black.

So, on Tuesday, things will be back to “normal.

When the league paused as players refused to play after the shooting of Jacob Blake, it was the NBA’s Black athletes essentially saying that they weren’t going to keep being America’s entertainment so that white Americans could escape the realities of racism. But, according to Silver’s words, it’s time for the league to put the real issues aside because white people want their basketball back how they prefer it: guilt-free.



Even though “normal” was how we got here in the first place. According to Silver himself, there’s no actual data that says that having “Black Lives Matter” on the court hurt the NBA.


“Now, some people might suggest that the words Black Lives Matter are causing massive amounts of people to tune out the NBA. There’s absolutely no data to support that,” Silver told GQ last month. “And in fact, as I said, there’s no doubt there are some people — and whether or not they were truly our fans to begin with is unclear — who have become further engaged with the league because they believe in our players and they believe in the positions they’ve taken, even if they don’t agree with everything they say. They respect their right to speak out on issues that are important to them.”

Last week, the NBA Foundation announced that they were donating $2 million in inaugural grants to support Black communities. The Atlanta Hawks pledged $40 million to fight the racial opportunity gap in October. And in August, the league’s Board of Governors announced a $300 million commitment “dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.”


Checks are getting cut and things are happening off the court. Those efforts can’t be ignored or diminished. But, will we see players take a knee this season?

I guess we’ll see. During the bubble, Silver didn’t enforce the league’s long-standing rule that players and coaches must stand during the national anthem.


Throughout the NBA’s restart, multiple players talked about how they couldn’t let up or take their foot off the gas when it came to racial justice. This is sad when you realize that the burden of equality falls on the oppressed. That burden also falls on us in the media. Will ESPN and TNT reporters ask the same sort of questions they did in the bubble, or will things go back to “normal” for them, too?

We’ll get all of those answers in a few days, and throughout the season. But the one thing we won’t get is Black Lives Matter back on the court.


And in a time in which we still have to remind people to wear a mask, I can assure you that Black lives mattering is a reminder that needs to remain constant.