NBA, WNBA honor their names in social justice roll call

The NBA and the WNBA restarting their seasons in a bubble atmosphere in the state of Florida is just as much about speaking out against social injustices as it is about getting back on the court to play basketball. The killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and others have sent the nation into a spell of cultural awakening and racial justice reckoning. 

The lack of accountability in officer-involved deaths usually goes nowhere, though. This is not unusual. According to Mapping Police Violence (MPV), from 2013 to 2019, 99 percent of these incidents resulted in police officers not being charged with a crime.

This is not a favorable conclusion for Black people who make up just 13 percent of the general population in the United States and represent nearly a third (28 percent) of the people killed by police since 2013.  Of the 1,098 people killed by law enforcement in 2019, Blacks accounted for 259 of the victims, according to a Mapping Police Violence statistical graph. 

PALMETTO, FL – JULY 25: Team members of the Seattle Storm honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor by wearing Taylor’s name on their jerseys on July 25, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)

Making a Statement 

The high-profile deaths of Floyd, Taylor, and Brooks have resulted in calls to defund police departments and have pushed people into the streets to protest the continued mistreatment of Black Americans by police. Sports leagues across the board, including the NBA and WNBA, have taken up the mantle to be the voice of many.

When the WNBA kicked off its opening weekend, league players wore the name of Breonna Taylor on the back of their jerseys. After her team had defeated the Phoenix Mercury, 99-76, in the first game of the WNBA season, Los Angeles Sparks guard Chelsea Gray talked about the importance of speaking about Taylor’s case and police violence.   

“I think it was huge, first of all, for our league to have Breonna Taylor’s name on the back of our jerseys,” Gray said. “And you saw the shirts the coaching staff that the coaching staff was wearing, and that’s kind of been the vibe, you know. It’s bigger than basketball, and that’s been kind of the talk around the league amongst us players. [Just] want to get different messages out there and saying her name. It’s important. It’s vital to protect us as Black women, us as a Black culture, us as Black people.”  

PALMETTO, FL- JULY 24: on July 24, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE

Looking for Breonna Taylor 

There might be some people wondering aloud about just who Taylor is. Taylor died at the hands of Louisville Metro Police officers who decided to unload a hail of bullets into her as they were executing a no-knock warrant on her apartment unit. 

The killing of the 26-year-old Taylor in an early morning raid by police on March 13 has been the equivalent to a slow burn processing of news for people to catch up on. In normal times, the EMT’s murder may have been localized to regional news. But these are not normal times. 

Taylor died two months before a video caught a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd on May 25 for nearly nine minutes. The 46-year-old Floyd died as a result of suffocation from the knee pressure by former Minneapolis, Minnesota policeman Derek Chauvin. 

Chauvin, along with three of his colleagues, lost their jobs. Chauvin has also been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Floyd. That video of Floyd dying as he lay on the street distressfully calling out “I can’t breathe,” ignited a global firestorm of anti-police brutality protests. 

I want to make one more comment that I noticed,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after his team fell to the Los Angeles Lakers, 103-101 in the NBA’s restart. “Can I ask them questions, the media? How long do you think the national anthem lasted? Two minutes? So the hardest thing that happened to me in the game today was kneeling for two minutes. Like, my knee hurt. In the middle of it, I’m thinking, in two minutes my knee is hurting, yet there was a guy that had his knee on someone’s neck for eight minutes. Think about that. The national anthem took two minutes. There were guys that needed towels and things to get under their knees. Yet someone kneeled on another human being’s neck for eight minutes. That’s nuts when you think about it.”

Demonstrators take to the streets in downtown Los Angeles, California, to protest the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on June 3, 2020. Both Floyd and Taylor died at the hands of the police. Taylor was killed on March 13. Floyd lost his life on May 25. Four police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death which was caught on video. As of July 31, 2020, there have been no charges brought against the police officers involved in the shooting death of Taylor. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

No Justice, No Peace 

Taylor’s family has only seen a minute semblance of justice.  It is now it’s coming up on five months since Taylor’s body was riddled with eight bullets by police that took her life. In two weeks it would be five months since Taylor was violently taken away from her family, friend and co-workers. 

There have been no clear-cut answers to what really happened the night she died. Even more glaring is the fact that there have not been any arrests or charges connected to the killing of Taylor. The FBI is now involved in her case. The Louisville Metro Police Chief, who had agreed to resign from his position, was fired after an unrelated killing of a Black man, took place. 

And yet the only news coming in the form of an arrest or the officers involved in Taylor’s death being locked up behind bars, have come from crickets. Nothing. There hasn’t even been a released autopsy report. The NBA and the WNBA are doing their part in ramping up the awareness of the senseless death of Taylor, who would have turned 27 on June 5. 

The Louisville Metro Council voted to do away with police no-knock warrants in June, a small measure of justice for Taylor’s family. But this isn’t good enough for Tamika Palmer, Taylor’s mother. 

Palmer filed a lawsuit against the three police officers involved in her daughter’s death, alleging that they were part of a rogue police unit who went around doing the dirty work of seizing rundown and drug-infested properties that in return would benefit a large real estate development in the name of gentrification.    

A protester holds up an artistic likeness of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Los Angeles, California, on June 3, 2020. The protest was part of nationwide and global unrest in wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others who have died in police custody. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman

Do Black Lives Really Matter?

All the senseless killings of Black folks without repercussion has gone stale, but it keeps happening. An example of this blank check immunity for police officers came in the form of an announcement that the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014, which set off rounds of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and nationwide, will not face criminal charges.   

The Lakers and Clippers went a step further in their social justice messaging, staging a unified kneel-down during the singing of the national anthem while players and coached locked arms as Black Lives Matter t-shirts were flexed proudly on their torsos. 

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard said he was just chilling in a good space before the two teams took a knee. 

I was just listening to my music,” Leonard said. “Before yesterday we all knew we were going to do that; both teams together, came together, that we wanted to make a statement. [We] came out and did that.”

With the backdrop of Black Lives Matter painted on the court and the United States flag draped behind the players, the Lakers and Clippers served up a dose of cultural reality for the nation at this moment in time. 

That period of looking the other way when it comes to identifying and speaking out against systemic and structural racism has gone out the window.  That moment means time’s up on being silent about police violence against Black people and people of color. 

Paul George
“We stood up for something. We kneeled for something,” said Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George on NBA players taking a knee during the restart to the NBA season. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

The Shadow of Colin Kaepernick

Four years ago, the WNBA was out front in making social justice statements against the killing of Black people. Four years ago, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in peaceful protest to create heightened attention to police brutality. 

Four years later, the moment has come full circle for Lakers superstar LeBron James.  

“Kap was someone who stood up when times wasn’t comfortable; where people didn’t understand, when people refused to listen to what he was saying,” James said. “You go back and listen to any of his postgame interviews when he was talking about why he was kneeling…it had absolutely nothing to do about the flag, it had absolutely nothing to do about the soldiers-the men and women that keep our land free. He explained that and their ears were closed. People never listened. They refused to listen. I did. And a lot of my people, you know, in the Black community did listen; and we just thank him for sacrificing everything that he did to put us in a position today even years later to be able to have that moment like we had tonight.”       

Justified or not, police violence has cost the lives of Taylor, Brown, Floyd, Stephon Clark, Ezell Ford, Walter Scott, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and way too many others. These incidents are now being openly rebuked and scrutinized by American citizens. 

Those running things in corporate America seem to have found the light on this issue and have chosen they want to be on the right side of history. The NBA and the WNBA have been at the forefront of driving home the message call to confront the social injustices being afflicted upon Black Americans and people of color. 

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James in warm-ups before his hit the floor against the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 10, 2020. After the Lakers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 103-101, in the NBA’s restart prime time game on July 31, James spoke out on why players and coaches took a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

Racial Justice and Unity  

There are a whole plethora of issues that can be covered under that umbrella, including Blacks and people of color being subjected to discrimination in housing. Voter suppression, being on the wrong end of police brutality and leading the homelessness count are other areas where Blacks disproportionately are in front of other ethnic groups.     

The Lakers and Clippers’ solidarity move prior to their primetime TV game spoke volumes on how far the league is willing to push the social justice agenda. The move by the NBA to push social justice messaging went up to another level by this well-orchestrated and peaceful protest. The moment took on an even meaningful note as Rivers and Lakers coach Frank Vogel knelt down next to each other, heads bowed and interlinking arms together. 

“I was proud to do it, proud to support our players, proud to support the African American community, and proud to support racial justice,” Vogel said. “We’ve got the greatest country in the world, but we’re flawed. Protesting the way we did, you know, is patriotic. Nonviolent protests are patriotic, and that’s what we learned from John Lewis. For me to be able to be a part of that….to support racial justice the way we did, I’m very proud to be part of this. It’s not about disrespecting the flag or the military. Nobody supports the military as much as the NBA with the programs that we have. You know, it was just something I was proud to be a part of.”

Black. White. Coaches. Players. Everyone is in this thing together.      

It felt great,” said Clippers small forward Paul George. “It felt great. You look at it from afar, millions tuned in to the game tonight. It’s great. It’s always going to be on people’s minds. It’s always going to have some sort of weirdness to it, but it was great. Played for something. We stood up for something. We kneeled for something. This league is all about unity. Can’t say it enough. I love being a part of it because of the brotherhood of this league. At the same time, we know that we can change things as well.” 

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