In the thirty-plus years of my professional life prior to becoming the Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, those words constituted the beginning and end of all that I had to say to the media. I didn’t seek out publicity for myself and, most significantly, my clients didn’t either.
I spent those early years as a trial lawyer. My clients ranged across the spectrum: Initially, when I was a public defender, they were largely low-income (a.k.a. poor) young men of color (a.k.a. Black) and charged with a variety of criminal offenses, from simple drug possession to homicide. They were not celebrities. They weren’t seeking public attention. Their focus—our focus—was on the 12 men and women who would ultimately decide their fate. If the offense with which they were charged happened to generate media attention, it was almost always negative—a “heinous offense.” My job was to avoid facilitating any headlines. Our case needed to be decided in court, not litigated in the media. Our jury needed to hear what was said by witnesses under oath, not political pundits offering their insights. That posture worked for my clients, and it worked for me. My positive acquittal rate was largely a result of keeping jurors focused on what happened inside of the courtroom and not on what others in the streets were saying, doing or feeling.
Later, as I transitioned into representing corporate America, not much really changed. Companies that hire trial lawyers do so because of alleged major transgressions. Whether private or public, companies that are accused of financial malfeasance, charged with distributing defective products or alleged to be engaged in other wrongdoing shun media attention. While the scale of the alleged transgressions had increased exponentially, the relationship I would foster or encourage with the media and the larger community on behalf of my clients remained the same: “No comment.”
Then came 2014. Upon learning that the NBPA was seeking to retain a new Executive Director, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. While the selection process was proceeding, Donald Sterling happened—you know the details. It was the response to the Los Angeles Clipper owner’s racist comments that I found most intriguing. Not just the public’s response—the players’ response. These potential new clients (more accurately, “bosses”) of mine were not shunning public attention. They were actively soliciting it. Their demands that Sterling be removed from the league were not whispered behind closed doors in private meetings with the commissioner. Rather, they were using their platforms to express in uncompromising terms that Sterling had to go. And, end of story, he got gone.
Of course, years earlier, I had seen these same men express their outrage on social media over the killing of Trayvon Martin and, famously, don hoodies in support of cries for justice in that case. I was also aware that player “protests” were part of the history of professional basketball in the U.S.—dating as far back as 1959, when Elgin Baylor decided to sit out a game to protest racial segregation, and in 1961, when the Black players on the Boston Celtics and then-St. Louis Hawks similarly sat out a game protesting Jim Crow laws. I suspected that, if selected as the Executive Director, I would likely for the first time be representing “clients” who identified the media as a vehicle demonstrating their power, not something to be feared or avoided. It was a mere matter of months after being selected for the job that my hunch proved accurate.
The “I can’t breathe” shirts worn by the players following Eric Garner’s killing, the powerful statements made by LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at the opening of the ESPYs after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the “Accountability” shirts worn during warm-ups following the shooting of Stephon Clark are just a few examples of how my bosses used the power of their voices to express their support for social justice in their—our—communities. It was, therefore, no surprise that in this otherwise extraordinarily challenging year, the players have even more aggressively lent their voices to this country’s conversation regarding systemic injustice.
While most have stood with our players in the pursuit of change, many have insisted that these men “shut up and dribble.” Are we hurting the game? Does this activity potentially affect the bottom line? Do our fans have the right to a “politics-free zone” as they watch our games?
Here’s where I come out: Obviously, our players—like every other member of the community—have the right of free expression. If they elect to “shut up and dribble,” that would be their right as well. However, as members of communities who love, respect and support each other, seeking to prevent or end harm to our neighbors is, perhaps, not only a right but a responsibility. When our players lend their time, bodies and money to, for example, assist hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, provide meals to the needy during the holidays, distribute free computers to low-income students and furnish clean water to families in Flint, Mich., they are being “good neighbors,” and no one suggests they “just dribble.” As they—we—see the horror that police misconduct has wrought in our communities, their efforts to bring attention to this issue and actively work to stop it is also akin to being a “good neighbor.” Those who crave a “politics-free zone” should, instead, be encouraged to know that despite their personal success and fortune, these men continue to believe they are obligated to support their communities through good and bad times.
Do I regret that, unlike during my past professional experiences, staying silent is not the modus operandi? Should I be encouraging the players to have “no comment”? Candidly, if I did, they would not heed that advice. And, knowing they wouldn’t makes me proud to call them “boss.”