What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes asked the question in his 1951 poem, ‘Harlem.’ We seemingly received the answer on Wednesday night when the sports world (save the NHL) came to a grinding halt following the latest case of police brutality against African Americans, the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to take the floor for their Game 5 against the Orlando Magic, which led to a wave of postponements across the NBA, WNBA, MLB and eventually the NHL, was a byproduct of the realization that social justice messaging on basketball courts and jerseys is insufficient to drive meaningful change—that more needs to be done. Raptors guard Fred Van Vleet said, “[It was] starting to feel like everything we’re doing is just going through the motions, and nothing’s really changing.” The question is what more can pro athletes do to initiate social progress?
Our Take: It is important to understand that professional athletes are limited in their ability to spark change—at least without help. Dennis Deninger, a Syracuse University professor who teaches a class called ‘Sports, media and society,’ warns against setting unrealistic expectations of them. “They’re not voting in state legislatures,” he said. “They’re not mayors. They’re not city councilmen, and they’re not police chiefs. They’re entertainers.” Ken Shropshire (CEO, Global Sports Institute, Arizona State University) agreed, adding that many of the issues at hand run too deep for any single group to solve—even one as large and influential as the NBA players are.
For professional athletes to initiate meaningful change on issues like mass incarceration, police accountability, equality in sentencing and the minimum wage, they’ll need “the owners and all of the league’s partners and advertisers to buy in,” Deninger said. That’s because those are the individuals/corporations with access to power brokers at the federal level (think: DeVos family).
While it is hard to reason why anyone would not overwhelmingly support racial equality and social justice, big business tends to avoid taking positions they believe could negatively affect the bottom line. That explains why the vast majority of team owners, league partners and advertisers have yet to offer tangible solutions in support of the players’ cause (many have issued statements). The strongest leverage the players have to alter that dynamic is to withhold their services (as they did on Wednesday evening) until stakeholders agree to do more. “Fewer games means fewer opportunities to make money,” Deninger explained.
To be clear, Deninger is not suggesting the NBA players should shut it down. “If they cancel the season, they lose the platform and seriously restrict their ability to get the message across,” he said. “While it would be a dramatic statement to cancel the season, the last thing [the players] want to do right now is lose their mechanism for connecting with people.” Apparently, the players agreed with the Syracuse professor. It was announced on Thursday that they voted in favor of resuming the postseason this weekend.
Having the ability to deliver their message is critical because awareness is often the precursor for change. “People become aware—not just of the problem, but the way it is affecting people—and that starts to dramatically connect people on a human level. The next step is to interact with decision- makers, power brokers and organizations that can generate public support,” Deninger explained. Once there is a groundswell of public support, the people in power feel pressure to indoctrinate change.
Of course, some of the people in power are part of the problem, and the only way to change that is to vote them out. So, the work LeBron James and others are doing with ‘More Than a Vote,’ an organization working to fight systematic voter suppression, is the type of activism that can truly make a difference. Similarly, efforts by the Election Super Centers Project to help make stadiums and arenas around the country available for fast, safe voting will have a lasting impact. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if NBA and WNBA players announced plans to appear at various voting locations around their home cities on November 3rd. One must think fans would be motivated to turn out if they had a chance to meet one of their idols.
Voting aside, Shropshire says there are no shortage of programs or activities that players could participate in at the local level (which can be accomplished more easily) that would help to alleviate the social ills plaguing the black community. Doing “more police ride-alongs, [creating] more Boys & Girls Clubs, [funding] the Backpacks for Kids program and [providing] bail money for protestors [are among those that would deliver immediate benefits]. It’s not necessary [for players] to develop their own programs—the key is to find some that are already working and could be made better with their support.”
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