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NBA will attempt to turn distraction of games into platform for social justice, other leagues should too

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With the 2019-20 NBA season set to resume in July, several players have expressed hesitancy about returning due to the potential of distracting from efforts of people around the country to bring awareness and change to social injustices. Kyrie Irving, Dwight Howard and Lou Williams are just some of the players who have questioned whether a return to play is the right move.

The NBA will attempt to assuage those concerns by dedicating its return to combating systemic racism and promoting social justice, as announced by the league and players’ association on Wednesday. The sides have yet to announce specifics of their plan, but having a goal to keep a magnifying glass on these issues is a step in the right direction.

“The issues of systemic racism and police brutality in our country need to end,” NBPA president Chris Paul said in a statement from the league. “As a union of NBA players and as a league, it is our job to use our collective platform to both put a spotlight on those issues and work to effect change. As players, we have taken a leadership role when it comes to using our voices and implementing practical solutions, but there is much work ahead both in Orlando and long-term to continue the momentum and bring about real, long-lasting change to our society.”

Some may question whether concerns of a distraction are warranted, whether people are incapable of compartmentalizing enough to enjoy games for a few hours while also continuing to champion social justice reform. Those questions would be legitimate if not for the people who turn to sports for the specific reason of being distracted.

Many of them are the same people who say they don’t want “politics” in their sports; they watch sports to get away from the “real world.” They’d rather television networks “stick to sports,” and athletes “shut up and dribble” (especially when the views are opposed to their own). They want nothing more than for things to return to status quo -- and status quo means the recent push for social equity slows down.

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Status quo also means the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, or the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery are never arrested and charged. Status quo means a law is never adopted to hopefully prevent an incident similar to how Breonna Taylor was killed. Status quo means NASCAR never bans a symbol of hate from its races or thoroughly investigates what was thought to be another symbol of hate. Status quo means NFL commissioner Roger Goodell never acknowledges the league should’ve listened to players sooner.

It's worth noting many players and well-intentioned fans are also itching for sports. But among the people who most desperately want sports to return are the ones who can stand to learn the most during this time of reflection, education and action -- people actively perpetuating racism or resisting the truth of its impact on society.

Most major sports leagues have already decided that the financial risks of not playing games is too large to swallow, even in the midst of a global pandemic. But if games must be played, the least these leagues can do is use their platforms to keep a spotlight on social justice efforts. The last thing they should want to do is provide a reprieve for people working against those efforts.

The NBA, particularly in the era of LeBron James and commissioner Adam Silver, has been applauded for its progressiveness in addressing social matters. James is as outspoken as any modern athlete, and the NBA often follows the lead of its majority-black body of players, not the other way around.

“The league and the players are uniquely positioned to have a direct impact on combating systemic racism in our country, and we are committed to collective action to build a more equal and just society,” Silver said in the statement. “A shared goal of our season restart will be to use our platform in Orlando to bring attention to these important issues of social justice. We look forward to engaging in ongoing conversations with the players and their Association about our joint leaguewide initiative and thank [NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts], Chris and the other players for their leadership toward creating meaningful, long-term change.”

The NBA and NBPA is on the right path to setting an example that other leagues can follow as their seasons also approach a start. Only time will tell whether they follow through on their commitment, but successfully playing games while simultaneously impacting social justice reform could be a model for this season and years to come.

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