After a four-month hiatus, basketball is back — but it looks different now than it did before the NBA shut down in March.
The league is taking increasingly surreal precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with officials and reporters wearing masks, referees using whistle covers, and the empty seats being “populated” by a bizarre crowd of virtual fans.
But just as noticeable is the impact of the killing of George Floyd by white police officers in Minneapolis, and the protests against anti-Black racism that his death inspired.
Before the games start, players wear Nike shirts that read “Black Lives Matter,” and most kneel during the national anthem. When one of the American teams play against the Toronto Raptors and there’s an occasion for two national anthems to be broadcast, as during the Raptors’ game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night, players shift the knee they’re kneeling on to indicate that racism and police brutality need to be addressed everywhere.
Toronto-born Oshae Brissett, one of only two Canadian players on the Raptors, has said it’s important to recognize police brutality isn’t just an American issue.
“I don’t feel like it’s really Canadian or American because whatever is happening there is happening in Canada as well. Maybe it’s not televised or recorded as much, but that stuff goes on everywhere,” he told reporters two weeks ago. “Whatever messages are being passed around in America, I feel everyone in Canada really needs to pay attention.”
Defeating anti-Black racism is a particularly significant topic to many pro basketball players: during the 2015-2016 season, 74.3 per cent of NBA players were Black, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Basketball players are also given more leeway to express political opinions than professional athletes in other sports, like football.
The Raptors arrived in the NBA bubble in Orlando in a bus that had “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on both sides.
Players in the league have also been given the option to print messages on the back of their jerseys, rather than their last names. They were given a pre-approved list of social justice messages to choose from, and while some players were given the OK to use alternatives, many objected to being told how they were allowed to voice their opinions.
“I was really disappointed in the options that were given to us,” Raptors player Norman Powell told reporters last month. “I felt like the list was very cookie cutter and doesn’t really touch on topics of what we’re trying to achieve here.”
That was apparently the reason Lakers superstar LeBron James opted to just keep using his name. Other players had their own reasons for not putting a message on their jerseys, like James’s teammate Anthony Davis, who said he wanted to keep his name to honour his family.
But all 17 of the Raptors, even Powell, opted for messages. By far the most popular was the simple, direct “Black Lives Matter,” which was chosen by seven players, including stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet was also irritated by the lack of freedom afforded to players, but said he’s “not losing sleep” about it.
“There’s a lot bigger fisher to fry and a lot more work to do,” he said, according to NBA.com. “There are real issues going on. Breonna Taylor’s killers are still walking around and living a very free life.”
Powell went with “Black Lives Matter” because it was the “most radical saying” on the list, he said. “It was really close to me and how I felt at the time. Am I next?”
Matt Thomas, who’s white, told Sportsnet he chose “Black Lives Matter” because it “represents justice and equality and that’s something, quite frankly, the Black community hasn’t had.”
“For me, putting that on the back of my jersey, making that visible down here in Orlando when the lights are bright and the cameras are on us is just a small, small action,” he said. “Hopefully it is an action that can start to create change in our country.”
Kyle Lowry opted for “Education Reform,” a message that isn’t as explicitly about fighting racism, but his reasoning in line with his teammates’.
“Growing up in the inner city, we weren’t really taught Black, African-American history. We weren’t taught about our ancestors,” he told Sports Illustrated. “The type of neighbourhood I grew up in, they don’t get the same type of education as the kids in ... the suburbs, in the more polished neighbourhoods. So I think it starts there: educating the youth.”
Serge Ibaka, who grew up speaking French in the Congo, went for “Respectez Biso,” which means “Respect Us” in his French dialect.
“What is going on here is going on everywhere. I feel like we need respect,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Me, coming from Congo – even out there they don’t really respect us.”
“I just feel it’s important that people’s names be in the media and we should be talking about them, their situations, what happened and just to raise awareness for everyone,” Anunoby told reporters last week. “Just keep the message going, keep spreading awareness, just so we don’t forget. You know, we have a platform. We are trying to use it.”