DENVER — The NBA trails Major League Baseball and the NFL in generating revenue. In generating social change, it leads. By a lot.
Last Wednesday, three hours before Game 5 of the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks announced they would not take the court that night.
Video had recently surfaced from Kenosha, Wis., not far from Milwaukee, of police shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back as he got into his car with his three young children inside.
The NBA players who represent the state of Wisconsin had had enough.
Reading a statement from the whole team, including team owners, guards Sterling Brown and George Hill called for the Wisconsin State Legislature to address police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.
By the end of Wednesday night, all three of that night's playoff games were postponed and Thursday's, too. Players refused to play, which was remarkable enough, but coaches, owners and the league stood behind them. Something that, until this point, had been unheard of in the past.
Players spent the unplanned days off in long, emotional discussions with each other, their teams and the league. When games resumed by the weekend, players had negotiated a spectacular list of changes.
The NBA established a social justice coalition to focus on access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for police reform.
NBA arenas will be converted into voting locations for the upcoming general election in November, and ads will air in each playoff game, promoting civic engagement and raising awareness about voting access.
And it's not like this is a league of lefties.
Plenty of team owners support conservative candidates and causes. Heck, the family of Trump's Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, owns the Orlando Magic.
So why is the NBA leading in social change?
First and foremost, it's because of the players and the leverage they have.
As Lakers forward Anthony Davis said, if the owners don't keep their word about these new policies and procedures, "Then we won't play again. It's as simple as that."
Though legally it may not be as simple as that, the reality is, it pretty much is.
More than others, the NBA is a player-centric league. Teams are small. Only 15 on each team.
No one is hidden beneath a helmet or buried in a 55-man roster, and these small teams are made up of powerfully influential stars, many of whom advocate for social justice.
Take Lebron James, a dominating force inside and outside of the court.
He can move the needle of public opinion through his 120-million social media followers.
No one in America was unaware of what happened to George Floyd after Lebron wore a shirt noting the 8 minutes and 46 seconds a cop's knee was on the neck of Floyd before he died.
Nuggets star Jamal Murray had the faces of police violence victims painted on his shoes, and after his 50-point game in Game 6 against the Jazz said, "In life, you find things that hold value. Things to fight for. We found something worth fighting for as an NBA, as a collective unit. I use these shoes as a symbol to keep fighting all around the world."
But it's not just the players.
The NBA also has a passionate, vocal commissioner in Adam Silver.
In May, following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Commissioner Silver sent a memo to the whole league which said, in part, "just as we are fighting a pandemic, which is impacting communities and people of color more than anyone else, we are being reminded that there are wounds in our country that have never healed.”
And the NBA has coaches like Doc Rivers of the Clippers. After Jacob Blake's shooting, an emotional Rivers said, "We've been hung. We've been shot. It's amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back."
It's hard to imagine many NFL coaches reacting that way — and compare all this to the NFL's response to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem.
When the NBA postponed its games last week, the dominoes fell. Games were canceled in Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NHL. The NFL canceled practices.
If social change continues to sweep through pro sports, given their impact on America, this could be a watershed moment for race relations in the U.S. lead by the NBA.
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