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NBA rules might go out the window in battle against racism and social injustice

Vincent Goodwill
·7-min read

NBA players have followed stringent rules to the letter of the law in order to pass the first checkpoint of getting back on the floor. For them to maximize their goal of battling racism and social injustice, they’ll have to abandon rules they helped create.

The players have an amazing opportunity to press further in this moment of racial reckoning, and should one player — just one — step outside of the carefully drawn lines, the NBA will have a decision on its hands.

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Quite frankly, the league’s in an impossible position — but it just made the impossible possible by getting this far, a matrimony in the most impossible of places, the petri dish of Florida.

The marriage between the players and league is not one of convenience, but the goals are similar. The potholes are ahead because both are walking fine lines that are impossible to follow perfectly. The lines are drawn by leverage neither side wants to exercise, power that’s become greater for each in this pandemic.

Passing through Phase 4 without a positive COVID test illustrates this plan can work, as the owners and league stand to gain more monetarily than the players should they succeed. The players have realized a strength in numbers, even if they’re unwilling to press the envelope with team owners on statements surrounding social injustice.

Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler wasn’t trying to start the revolution, but he unknowingly discovered a flaw in this elaborate plan when he wanted a blank nameplate as opposed to a slogan or his last name on his jersey.

There’s no wiggle room, no space for improvisation.

A high-ranking figure with the NBA told Yahoo Sports the players came up with the 28 sayings on their jerseys, not the other way around, and not one suggestion was turned down. A source with the NBPA said the players worked with the owners, which one can infer is why they didn’t go the radical route.

Butler is as hardheaded as they come on matters of principle, and even winning this battle doesn’t seem likely, he’s not likely to tap into his inner John Lewis and set the league afire. But shock and awe can’t be collectively bargained.

Dissension is a natural part of progress, designed to make corporations uncomfortable — even corporations that are allies and that put “Black Lives Matter” on its floor in a spot that can’t be ignored. Big, Black and unavoidable is someone’s worst nightmare, possessing anonymous or notable Twitter accounts sure to express their displeasure for months on end.

The NBA is prepared for that backlash, even though the league is following the lead of anonymous and fed-up people in the streets of cities who’ll no longer be quiet. The league has to forever acknowledge the delicate relationship it’s built upon, with visible Black players and white fans.

The NBA has to gauge what’s acceptable and what will be stomached by the masses in the interest of entertainment and commerce.

It has established a wide boundary of ways it allows and even encourages its labor force to express itself, beginning with a well-received PSA that debuted on the night the league unveiled its return-to-play plan weeks ago.

The league will also feature several public service announcements that will play during the opening nights of the remaining regular-season games, filming and storing the players’ dogged determination to repeat the name of Breonna Taylor, calling for justice against Louisville police for a killing that happened two days after NBA play was suspended in March.

Miami Heat Forward Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Butler discovered a flaw in the NBA's jersey plan for the restart of the 2020 season. (Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The players haven’t yet mentioned the names of Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove, the police officers who executed the no-knock warrant that resulted in Taylor being struck by gunfire multiple times, ending her life. Not yet, at least, and the NBA hasn’t given any outward indication it would frown upon such displays. After all, this relationship is successful, so far.

The NBA’s plan is ambitious but compared to their counterparts, doable. The NFL can’t get out of its own way, and the sheer numbers of players make it difficult to forecast success without a hitch. MLB has so much travel, in addition to the lack of trust from its labor to the check writers.

College football shouldn’t even be considering putting on a season with its myriad issues.

Merely putting on a successful game for a nation that’s short on discipline for fighting COVID-19 but long on desire for their favorite pastime will earn the NBA currency its never been able to collect.

The league was the first major business in the country to shut its doors as a sign this virus was not to be trifled with. Opening up could be proof a new normal can be established until a vaccine is discovered, which could earn the league massive goodwill when it decides arenas are safe for fans to congregate in. There’s massive space to be gained in the marketplace and in history, and one wonders if the NBA is willing to risk opportunity in the name of dissent.

Their No. 1 objective is to make money, which cannot be forgotten even as the league attempts to be benevolent and responsible. And careful not to alienate a constituency that has the eyes, ears and hearts of the public for a large moment in time.

It’s no cakewalk for the players, to be clear. From the health risks they’re taking by being on the Disney campus to being well-aware the NBA’s owners could try to lock them out after the season and playoffs conclude to change the collective bargaining agreement, it’s not an easy decision to buck a liberal-ish system. Especially when it can cost future generations of NBA players money it can’t recoup through no fault of their own.

The largest collection of Black millionaires has a responsibility to the next crop to keep their earnings potential as great as possible and truthfully, it takes special types to sacrifice hard-earned gains.

It’s also unfair to expect athletes to be gatekeepers of legislation to combat racism, as the onus should be on lawmakers. And imperfect messengers can easily be discounted by bad-faith actors.

The players have sweat equity with the owners, in ways they haven’t before. This could be the start of a new type of empowerment, just off the illusion of leverage as opposed to cashing it in on a symbolic gesture.

It’s taken hundreds of years to build this monument of racism in America, filled with trap doors and secret passageways. The level of sophistication it takes to navigate won’t be achieved by NBA players, and they won’t tear the institution down in a day, a week or three months.

But they can take a big chunk from it, make the building lean and plant a banner of their own, should they choose to be as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The NBA players can’t go to Capitol Hill or every county in the country and change laws that uphold and advance racism. But if their voices weren’t so powerful and effective, there wouldn’t be such a rush to silence them, to tell them to shut up and dribble.

Asking the league or its players to find a sweet spot that doesn’t quite exist is a fool’s errand, an impossibility in a world that’s forever changing led by a virus no one can see and a movement that’s visible yet hard to negotiate.

The power’s in the unspoken leverage, with the hope there’s grace from the other side in the event of an unplanned misstep in the midst of a plan that can’t afford a solo act.

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