One of the most repeated mythologies about sports is the idea that it has the ability to heal a nation.
Certainly, we all remember specific sports moments and their tremendous emotional impact on the country in times of peril. I remember Derek Jeter hitting a World Series walk-off home run as the clock struck midnight on Nov. 1, 2001, giving America something to cheer about post 9/11. I wept like a baby when my New Orleans Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons for the first game back in the Superdome after Katrina — a game that has been immortalized with a statue in front of the arena.
These two moments, and many others, have been canonized among the most inspirational in sports history. They were supposed to bring about healing to devastated communities. And while I love these moments, the Saints’ victory especially, I know that they didn’t actually heal anything. Jeter’s home run didn’t stop the country from waging a racist, xenophobic war on the Middle East and Muslims in America. The Saints’ triumph against their NFC South rival didn’t suddenly allow displaced Black people back into New Orleans.
Even still, there’s a prevailing hope that the return of sports, namely the NBA season which abruptly ended on March 11 after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, will be part of the nation’s rebuild and healing. In April and early May, the idea of the NBA coming back to make the country feel a semblance of returning to normal felt like a widely accepted notion. And there may have been some validity to the notion that the NBA giving the country something to talk about and engage in while sheltering in place could have some tangible benefit.
But things have changed. At the same time as the country is grappling with a pandemic, it is also in the midst of maybe its most transformative reckoning on race. Ever.
Black Americans are mobilizing and expressing frustration, hope, anger, pain and love en masse in ways many of us haven’t seen in our lifetimes. At the same time as this is happening, the country’s mistreatment of Black folks is under a microscope with a radius that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Police are killing Black people on camera seemingly every day. Then there are the countless other Black folks who are dying in the shadows, namely the terrifying occurrence of Black people being hanged in California, Oregon, and Florida.
Now, the framing of the NBA being used to let the country focus on something other than a thousand dead Americans a day and an endless onslaught of images of police violence make the idea of the NBA healing anything feel like an exploitative billionaire pipe dream. I’m a huge NBA fan. I’ve watched it all my life and have covered the sport for most of my career. I’d love nothing more than to see the return of one of my favorite pastimes. But the idea of Black men putting their careers, health and families on the line to entertain a country that hasn’t shown it cares about them beyond the entertainment they provide, and to make money for billionaires who only see them as commodities feels like the type of Americana we are fighting against.
Right now, the NBA players themselves are split over the continuation of the season. The league has a plan that involves putting players and staff in “containment bubbles” to keep them away from the dangers of catching COVID-19. Even going so far as to maybe equip them with specialized rings that would tell them if they are at risk for the disease — a device that so far is still unavailable for essential workers in the country. Players would be essentially forbidden from leaving. Now, I know it’s hard to imagine millionaires as slaves and that’s a call I’ve resisted especially with NBA players, but it damn sure feels like they are being asked to stay on a plantation.
The players themselves are at a crossroads over the whole situation. Kyrie Irving has reportedly been leading the charge for players to resist playing, arguing that the optics of Black players putting their lives at risk in this American moment sends a bad message. Players who favor the return of the season believe that all of the eyes on them right now would mean an ability to send a more impactful message for the country to hear.
My hope is that each player feels empowered and honored by whatever he ends up doing for the rest of the season (if there even is one, considering these players would have to fly into Florida where cases are spiking and containment measures are minimal), no matter what the collective decides. Whatever the players decide, I have faith that their minds are on freedom and they will feel that their next steps will maximize the message of Black liberation. So I don’t want anyone to confuse what I’m saying as a criticism of their decisions.
No, this is about America. This is about the very American hope that Black sweat will again save this country from itself. This is about the very American desire to see itself reflected off the glistening sweat of Black labor. This is about America’s desperation to move on without having to reckon. But this is different. No matter what heroic feat athletes will perform on the socially distanced and fan-less courts to make the country cheer in our homes, the players will still be making conscious efforts to remind onlookers about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the endless list of Black bodies piling up under the weight of an American need. The streets will still be filled will Nike sneakers stomping to the drumbeat of freedom even as tear gas billows into the air. And the fight will persist.
LeBron dunks, Giannis eurosteps, and Kawhi’s defense won’t make America feel normal again because America has no normal anymore. We are in the midst of an uprising in which the stars this country usually relies on for a distraction will be the power players helping initiate change even if they decide to play. And if they decide against it? Well, that’s even more of a chance for the country to stew in its own actions. Either way, I have faith that NBA players will be part of a reckoning instead of a distraction.