Can basketball serve as a conduit of change for and make an impact on issues of racial justice in today’s society?
At a time when college teams have just finished fighting for a national NCAA championship and NBA camps are fighting for a playoff spot, many people of color across the country are fighting for safety, significance and solidarity.
The Center for African American Studies and Department of Athletics at Princeton University, along with former Princeton starting guard and New York Knicks General Manager Steve Mills, recognized the need for an educational series around topics of Sports, Race and Society. In their first lecture titled “Political Expression and Activism in Today’s NBA,” they brought together NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and ESPN College Basketball Analyst Craig Robinson (Class of ‘83) to join the conversation. Steve Mills not only helped bring the panelists but is also funding the initiative.
The tone was set with the insightful introduction by Mollie Marcoux, the Ford Family Director of Athletics, that spoke to why Princeton was the perfect platform for the topics of the day with the featured panelists. After congratulating the women’s team, where Robinson’s daughter plays a Freshman, on having a perfect regular season, and describing even greater academic success their student-athletes have outside of their sport, she stated, “we want our athletes and coaches to lead on important issues and to use our platform to bring the community together and make the world a better place.” The conversation that followed delivered on this mission.
The moderator, Center for African American Studies Chair Eddie S. Glaude Jr., opened the discussion with a description of the times, stating that we are in a moment of intense crisis and asking about the responsibility of athletes and executives. Silver commenced the responses. Though it has been a year since his swift action, including a lifetime ban and $2.5 million fine, in dealing with former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, that was just the beginning of an influx of national headlines reporting issues and injustice towards people of color in this country. (View the full panel here.)
When 80% of the players share the same ethnicity of those featured in these stories, he is not surprised that players like Derrick Rose would want to don T-shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe,” but he believe that there needs to be a balance.
“There is a myth that there is one unified player,” Silver said, adding that they each has their own opinions.”I also have a responsibility to draw a line because if that platform [NBA games] became the daily forum for political expression, it would drown out any particular political point of view and at then end of the day it would be a disservice to the fans who came to see a basketball game,” Silver explained.
Steve Mills weighed in, saying, “I don’t think players have a responsibility to do this. I think they have an opportunity… if they feel strong enough where they feel like this issue means enough to [them] then there’s an opportunity to use the platform … to take a position on something.”
In reference to collegiate athletes, Craig Robinson, who was a coach at Brown University and Oregon State, shared that he had a responsibility to at least try to educate his players in a way they feel comfortable and safe sharing an opinion if they wanted to do so.
Panelists also discussed their views on process after conversations. Robinson shared that he believes the importance of education should be emphasized to athletes so that they can be professionals on and off the court for a lifetime. Mills said players have an opportunity to help young people carry themselves in a positive manner and understand that there is a path out of their situation that does not include illegal activity.
Lastly, Silver reflected on how the NBA wants to make an impact by helping young boys and girls interested in their sport to become productive and politically active citizens through teaching them principles of the game including respect, integrity, hard work and team work. Silver said, “It’s amazing the impact we can have on society through a team sport like basketball.”
Mia Hall is a multimedia content producer and speaker specializing in the business of sports. She has worked with organizations such as the WNBA, NY Knicks, The High School of Sports Management and Barclays Center. She is passionate about the youth of today and committed to organizations such as PowerPlay NYC, Inc. and other youth empowering organizations. Mia is a graduate of Hampton University and Harvard University. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., she covers events in NYC and beyond.