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'Up the ante': What players, NBA are doing for racial justice

Task forces, coalitions, foundations and donations are among plans to sustain momentum the league and players embraced last season
Milwaukee Bucks v Dallas Mavericks
Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks kneels for the National Anthem before the game against the Dallas Mavericks on Aug. 8, 2020 in Orlando, Fla., at AdventHealth Arena.Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images file

The bubble had burst.

The NBA's pandemic season in Orlando, Florida, reached a breaking point in late August when players refused to compete in playoff games. Basketball was an afterthought among players as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd and several other Black Americans, as well as their aftermaths, grabbed the nation's attention during a summer of racial reckoning.

The Milwaukee Bucks started a three-day boycott Aug. 25 in protest of Jacob Blake's shooting by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police Officer Rusten Sheskey, which left Blake paralyzed from the waist down. The leaguewide shutdown ultimately led to the rolling out of new efforts and initiatives.

Together, the NBA and its players went to work on social justice, accomplishing most of what the players lobbied for: Arenas became polling sites, "Black Lives Matter" was stickered on court sidelines in the bubble, social justice phrases such as "education reform" or "say her name" were added to the backs of jerseys, coalitions and foundations were formed, and the NBA committed donations to racial equity organizations.

The new season started last week in tipoffs across the country, no longer constrained by the pressurized sport or racial reckoning bubble. Given the players' accomplishments throughout 2020, in addition to summer protests becoming increasingly distant, many wonder what's next. Players and the league say they are developing specific plans to continue racial justice projects.

"Those are conversations that we are going to continue to have and start having more," said Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association, according to The Athletic. "We're having a player call where guys can express different ideas that they have. It doesn't stop just 'cause the bubble's over. Different things may happen. You may adjust. You may find other ways to bring attention to it. But it doesn't go away."

Early Voting Begins In Georgia
Voters cast their ballots inside of State Farm Arena, Georgia's largest early voting location, for the first day of early voting in the general election on Oct. 12, 2020 in Atlanta.Jessica McGowan / Getty Images file

State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, is an early-voting site for Georgia's Senate runoffs. And there have been new efforts: The NBA created an internal, cross-departmental Social Justice Task Force and also committed to increasing Black representation across the league and leveraging the power of its partnerships to drive change, in addition to other goals.

The NBA Board of Governors, which includes all 30 team owners, committed an initial $300 million toward establishing the first NBA Foundation in an announcement in early August. The governors also committed to annually and collectively donate $30 million to sustain it.

In addition to the task force, there are "two new entities we've created in partnership with the Players Association that are leading our collective efforts around social justice and racial equality," Silver said on a conference call with reporters in late December. The NBA Foundation and the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition "can make a real impact," Silver said.

The foundation has not decided what projects it will take on, but it recently announced $2 million in inaugural grants to seven organizations to increase economic prosperity in the Black community through employment and career advancement. The organizations are Exalt, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the Marcus Graham Project, Operation DREAM, TEAM Inc., The Knowledge House and the Youth Empowerment Project.

Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers
JaMychal Green #4 of the LA Clippers looks on during a game on July 30, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images file

"The need is everywhere," said Michele Roberts, a board member for the foundation and the coalition. She said the foundation's scope is wide because it has the bandwidth to embark on impactful work.

"We're hoping to empower folks that are already out in the field doing the work. There won't be much limit in terms of what areas we focus on," said Roberts, who is also the executive director of the NBPA.

The NBA and the NBPA announced the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition in November. It aims to educate and advocate for substantial reform specifically regarding voting access and the criminal justice system at the national, state and local levels. It met for the first time right before the season started.

"The hope is that we won't be dispersing a lot of energy into too many different places but to have one or two things we want to target for immediate action," Roberts said. She said deciding one or two priority projects will be the subject of the coalition's next meeting right after the new year.

"The sad news is that there's so much that needs to be done," she said. "What's not immediately agreed to as a starting point for the coalition is likely where we'll go ahead as a players association. As we prioritize what we want to have the coalition focus on, we're dusting off a wish list the players came up with earlier this year during the time games were suspended."

Roberts said the NBPA's agenda is largely written by players, so their priorities will likely be divided across the NBPA and the coalition. A few players are passionate about how the coronavirus has brought to light educational disparities and inequitable access to education, she said.

"Our first step was voting, getting people out to register, getting people out to the polls," Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal said, according to The Athletic. "We accomplished that. Now it's on to the next issue in society, addressing the systemic racism we still have, addressing the police brutality, addressing all these things we still deal with on a daily basis. The financial curve, that needs to be, that gap needs to be shrunk. There's a lot of things we need to dive into as a society, and I think us as a PA, as a league, we're going to continue to push those narratives."

Beal said "we don't really care" if television ratings drop because players organized.

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz - Game Four
The Utah Jazz huddle up during the game against the Denver Nuggets during Round One Game Four of the NBA Playoffs on Aug. 23, 2020 at The AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Orlando, Floa.Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images file

Blake's shooting hit close to home for many Bucks players, as Kenosha is about 30 minutes from where they play, and it was the impetus for their protest.

The team spoke to Blake's father shortly after the shooting, star Giannis Antetokounmpo said in a news conference at the time. "It was powerful. He touched me as a person."

Antetokounmpo also said "it was unacceptable."

"Things like that going on in the state, in the city we represent is unacceptable," he said. "We go out there and try to represent the city the right way. Things like this cannot happen back home."

Players scheduled for playoff games in late August followed the Bucks' lead by boycotting the games. The WNBA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball also joined in protesting. The standstill caught NBA officials by surprise, according to multiple reports at the time. Silver responded by writing a letter to employees.

Roberts said: "I've had players say to me, 'look, we can't have it be the case that we've reached our peak.' We have to up the ante and push the league. No one wants the rest of this sport to think we've done all we needed to do in this space, not at all. We've got to keep climbing."

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