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Michael Jordan’s role, the players vs. owners dynamic and the shattering of norms in the NBA

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In striking and sitting out scheduled playoff games Wednesday through Friday, NBA players elucidated issues of value.

By asking for justice on matters of racial injustice and police brutality — particularly in the case of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by police Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who is now paralyzed from the waist down — players redirected attention from trivial things. Lives are always more important than occupations. 

There’s usually not much scrutiny of the NBA’s hierarchy when it’s left undisturbed. Many players make millions of dollars and entertain fans, who pay to consume a high-quality product. Many owners make billions of dollars and profit from the whole venture. It’s a purely capitalistic enterprise that doesn’t feel especially unseemly if you just let everything be as it’s always been and enjoy the show.

In a league where the large majority of players are Black, there is only one Black majority owner, Michael Jordan. He’s reportedly played a central role in the dialogue between owners and players.

Jordan “was a voice of reason,” in a meeting Thursday, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, “urging the other owners to allow the players to express their frustrations and concerns before offering any of their own solutions.”

While Jordan’s message is laudable, it’s more than symbolic that he is the only Black member of the NBA’s supposed ruling class. Tangibly, he’s the one advocating for players’ voices to be the priority. 

 

Players are not telling us about their fear and pain and anger for selfish reasons — although it is worth noting that some, like the Bucks’ Sterling Brown, have experienced police brutality firsthand. 

“I’ve come to grips with the fact that yes, I’m Black,” Tobias Harris wrote in a June article published in The Players’ Tribune, “but that dude that’s getting pulled over by a cop in his car, he don’t have the luxury of that officer recognizing him. That’s the problem. The difference between a cop recognizing you or not shouldn’t be life or death.”

The strike led to players and owners agreeing on three major commitments, including the establishment of a social justice coalition to focus on “increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.” They also agreed to convert arenas to voting centers when possible, and to run advertising during playoff games related to “raising awareness around voting access and opportunity.”

Prior to the statement outlining those initiatives on Friday, the league’s Board of Governors announced on Aug. 5 a donation of $300 million over 10 years ($30 million annually), with a focus on “employment and career advancement” in Black communities. Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, co-founded by Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer, recently announced a $20 million commitment to “fighting systemic racism and championing equality.” While there’s obviously nothing wrong with those missions or projects, the context of Harris having a $4.8 billion net worth according to Forbes is not insignificant.

Players are asking those in power to address specific systemic inequalities. Bucks players mentioned “police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” If owners truly listen to players in this situation, they’ll use influence and capital in those areas via the newly formed social justice coalition — even if doing so may not be palatable to some, given that policing can be a divisive and financially risky issue. They’ll also follow through on the commitments to maximize voting access. 

Approximately 100 NBA employees went on strike Friday, according to ESPN’s Malika Andrews, and sent a letter to commissioner Adam Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum that said the league can “do more to directly address and combat police brutality and systemic racism in this country.” The fact that players pushed these new measures though proves that has been the case for a long time. 

 

The gestures of painting Black Lives Matter on a court or placing a pre-approved social justice phrase on the back of a jersey are better than nothing, in theory, but not when they’re misconstrued as profound activism. 

Players circumvented comfortable systems and language and halted the familiar routine of the NBA playoffs because — though they have no obligation to assume this role — they want to create positive societal change. It’s not encouraging that the most wealthy members of their league had generally been tepid in their approach to this movement. 

Whatever happens next, though, players have indicated as clearly as they possibly can that the old norms aren’t good enough.