Professional 'Bubble Ball,' in the NBA and WNBA, is Leading By Example

Members of the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel before a Black Lives Matter logo prior to the start of their game on July 30, 2020 in Reunion, Florida. (Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)

After a hiatus these past few months, pro sports are back. And somehow, in the meantime, I've converted from a common fan to a social scientist, paying extremely close attention and constantly analyzing how they play a part in the oddity that is the year 2020. Thus far, from what I’ve seen, the WNBA and NBA are maintaining health and safety, as well as keeping a focus on social justice—in fact, they're doing it better than any of the "Big Four" sports leagues.

They've got strict health guidelines and now-famous bubbles to contain the basketball players for the season. The room for social commentary, while limiting (after all, both leagues are businesses), seems to be more flexible than other leagues.

There's entertaining competition. The actual games, aesthetically, are eye-catching. Even with a digital display of fans replacing the normal crowd, it’s not too bad.

And it's also not pure escapism. The masks on the faces of everyone sitting on the sidelines is a reminder that we’re living in a pandemic where over 700,000 people around the world (and over one-hundred and sixty thousand people in the United States) have died from the virus.

But, man, after a long day of work, reading and writing about bad news on top of bad news, confined to my house with no one to talk to, there’s nothing like yelling at my screen while Oakland-raised NBA superstar Damian Lillard goes for 51 points.

Damian Lillard, in a jersey reading 'How Many More,' worn during the 2020 NBA season.
Damian Lillard, in a jersey reading 'How Many More,' worn during the 2020 NBA season. (Via Damian Lillard/IG)

Lillard, who wears the number 0, sports a jersey this season bearing the words “How Many More” across the top. It's a rhetorical question, posed to the general public, about the number of Black people killed by the police; obviously, the ideal answer is zero. Lillard evidently wanted to have “Oscar Grant” on his uniform. But he, like all other NBA players, had to choose from a pre-selected list of about 30 social justice terms the NBA decided to allow.

That means Lakers guard Alex Caruso—who, aside from the fact he's 6'5", is a relatively "normal looking" balding American white dude—now goes to work every day with the words “Black Lives Matter” on the back of his uniform.

At press time, Caruso, along with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, have given the Lakers the best record in the Western Conference in this abbreviated NBA season, which is actually a continuation of the suspended season from earlier this year. That means that, although play resumed just about two weeks ago, the “season” will conclude at the end of this week. And then the playoffs start.

Meanwhile, the WNBA is heading into their fourth week of play; their abbreviated season began in late July and is set to run until mid-September. (Normally the season goes from late May until early October.) Their bubble is located in Bradenton, Florida, at the sports magnet school IMG Academy.

One of the bubbles within that bubble is the attention given to Bay Area-born point guard Sabrina Ionescu. A star rookie from the University of Oregon, Ionescu was drafted number one overall last year by the New York Liberty. Ionescu and her squad opened the season against Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm, and before the National Anthem played, both teams walked off the floor.

This came on the heels of the league developing the Justice Movement platform and the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council. According to their press release, “The mission of the Social Justice Council is to be a driving force of necessary and continuing conversations about race, voting rights, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and gun control amongst other important societal issues.”

In addition to teams wearing warm-ups that say “Black Lives Matter” across the front and “Say Her Name” on the back, the Social Justice Council has backed this year's WNBA’s customized jerseys, which bear Breonna Taylor's name across the back. The idea, reportedly brought forward by Las Vegas Aces star player Angel McCoughtry, has met some opposition—namely from Senator Kelly Loeffler. A Republican from Georgia and co-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream, Senator Loeffler has been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past, and just last week published a statement against BLM's "radical ideas and Marxist foundations, which include defunding the police and eroding the nuclear family."

Loeffler's statement came in response to WNBA players on both the Atlanta Dream and the Phoenix Mercury wearing shirts that read "Vote Warnock," in support of Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, the Democrat currently campaigning for Senator Loeffler's seat.

Donning the shirts wasn't just a supportive gesture for the broad idea of pushing society toward a more equitable world, like other actions in pro sports—it was a firm and targeted shot into the world of electoral politics.

And the WNBA isn't alone in that area. Earlier this summer, Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green teamed up with Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy to pen an op-ed fighting for the right of college athletes to be paid. Green's stance is supported by LeBron James, who in addition to being vocal about the issue of college pay has also reportedly donated $100,000 to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to help pay off the court debts of Florida residents formerly convicted of felonies so that they can be legally allowed to vote.

It's all more direct and effective than earlier, less-successful attempts at confronting social issues. Like in April of 2014, when the Clippers protested then-owner Donald Sterling, who had made racist comments in a leaked audio clip. The team essentially threw down their warm-ups at center court, wore inside-out warm-ups (so as to conceal the Clippers' logo) and then proceeded to play the game while wearing black armbands. They lost to the Warriors.

Or in July of 2016, when the WNBA initially fined players for wearing black warm-up shirts as a way of protesting police brutality; the league later rescinded the fines.

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Overall, the bubble is handling this year much better than the MLB’s traveling escapade, which has already caused multiple teams to cancel games after players and staff contracted COVID-19.

The NHL’s bubble in Canada seems to be working, health-wise. And even there, they can't escape the current conversation: Minnesota Wild player Mathew Dumba spoke out against institutional racism, even within the NHL, before he took a knee during the National Anthem at a game earlier this month. It being hockey, Dumba was alone in kneeling.

The NFL, America's darling, is stumbling out of the blocks. As of this week, over 60 players have declined to play this season (though they can still receive stipends of $150k or more as advances against future pay). And, after watching the lack of properly worn face masks in this Philadelphia  Eagles promotional video, I wouldn't play either. (Two days after that video was posted, the Eagles confirmed that coach Doug Pederson had contracted COVID-19.)

But we already know that the NFL, which struggles with issues of domestic violence, players' mental health and racist owners, doesn't have the best track record of caring about its players, nor social justice issues. We'll see how it handles the current social-political climate, as well as health concerns, when they officially kick off next month.

The growth that's happened in basketball is good for the game, and better for the country. I'd like to keep the conversations about social justice and electoral politics going. Even if it gets a little weird at times.

I'll admit, that pre-fourth quarter interview that sideline reporters do with coaches is already awkward. You know the interview I'm talking about: when the coach clearly doesn't want to talk, but the network thinks it's a good idea to have the reporter ask them what their strategy is for the upcoming period. Couple it with questions about the importance of addressing systematic inequality, and it makes for an interaction that's just a bit off-kilter.

But a lot of what's happening in basketball isn't awkward. There's something to be said about Jaylen Brown’s post-game comments from last week, in which he quoted Angela Davis and critiqued the "deeply embedded" racism in the United States—harkening back to the third verse of the National Anthem.

And, again, acknowledging that these players make millions of dollars to play a game, you have to take your hat off to Jimmy Butler. The Miami Heat player stepped onto the court wearing a jersey with no name at all—to symbolize that if he weren't an NBA player, he'd be just another Black man. He later posted a photo of the jersey accompanied by a relevant quote from the late Rep. John Lewis.

Intellectual monologues from San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich have long been praised. So it's almost no surprise that earlier this month, when asked about the status of one of his players, Marco Belinelli, Popovich used it as a chance to explain the extent of deeply ingrained racism in the country, using legislation from the former Confederacy as an example, at length. (He wrapped by finally noting, "Marco Belinelli is out tonight.")

There's a real conversation going on here. And it's not just one-sided.

Miami Heat big man Myles Leonard says he supports Black Lives Matter, and even has the word "Equality" on his jersey. But Leonard, who served two tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps, has declined to kneel for the National Anthem. Jonathan Isaac, who plays for the Orlando Magic, made it clear that he won't kneel for the National Anthem for religious reasons. (In a bit of unfortunate irony, last week Isaac tore an ACL.)

As for my personal hesitations, seeing the words "Black Lives Matter" plastered on the hardwood next to AT&T and Deloitte logos still feels slightly off. Like, either the WNBA and NBA are commandeering the message, or using it as a password to be socially accepted. Or maybe it's just further evidence that public statements putting one on the "right side of history" are good for business. Just ask Nike—their stock reached an all-time high after their Kaepernick ad in 2018.

So, again, while I'm a fan of pro hoops and I appreciate superstars using their platform, I do question if it's just business.

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