What experts say NBA players should do with this power

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  • Kevin ArnovitzESPN Staff Writer

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    • NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
    • Former contributor and editor at NPR

Before the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association announced Friday that the postseason would resume with players and the league working collectively toward social justice goals, we reached out to more than a dozen leaders to ask how they would advise NBA players to use their influence to translate political passions into tangible results. One recurring theme that emerged from these elected officials, legal scholars, criminal justice reform advocates, communications executives and political operatives can be summarized by an old adage: All politics is local.

It’s not a coincidence that the Milwaukee Bucks spent part of Wednesday on the phone not with federal office-holders or national leaders, but with their state’s attorney general and lieutenant governor. Many of the laws that govern criminal justice originate at the local and state levels, and many of the grassroots organizations and local interests that can compel reform from those with power reside in local communities.

There are no simple answers to the most serious questions, and no singular route to progress. Our panel of experts offers a range of ideas to this generation of NBA players who are looking toward the next phase of their activism, excerpted below from longer conversations.

MORE: The reality of Black pain is breaking American sports’ status quo

PLATFORM

By stature and fame, NBA players can seem larger than life to the public. That prominence enables them to project a message that can reach the top rungs of power and the smallest communities. Learning how to maximize that range is a key to effective activism.

How can NBA players leverage their team’s place in civic life?

Sherrilyn Ifill (President and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund): Basketball teams live in cities, and these are largely local issues. Every team has the right to flex their power within its city. And the leaders in that city, the chief of police, the mayor, the city council, should be compelled to be responsive to what the teams want to see happening with policing in those communities. Make your city understand that the price of having an NBA team is becoming a leader in transforming public safety.

I would tell the teams and the players to become educated about what are the kinds of measures that must be undertaken to lessen the likelihood of what happened to Jacob Blake happening to anyone else. Connect with local grassroots groups that have been working on these issues and inform themselves about how these issues are actually playing out in the lives of ordinary people.

Then use their voice, their capital, their resources and their influence to push local leaders to make the kind of transformation that they want to see happen. That transformation can be thinking through how to lessen the footprint of law enforcement in Black communities, by supporting providing more resources for mental health and youth development and homelessness. It could involve looking at the disciplinary code and determining whether officers are being held accountable for conduct, and looking at laws in the city and laws of the state that may shield officers from accountability.

How can NBA players use their visibility to mobilize support?

Lee Saunders (President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees): Athletes are realizing, “We’ve got some juice,” and the most effective way to use it is to bring people in the community together on important issues. If an NBA player called for a meeting on the local level and invited state legislators, the mayor, city council members, school board or even members of Congress when they’re back home, I guarantee you they’d get a crowd and those elected officials will show up.

Now, you need to know the message you want to deliver to these elected officials. You need to educate them on how the issues impact the community, and how you want the job done. These kinds of sessions play a really important role — they can flip an issue. This is where the real lobbying takes place. They don’t need to come to Washington and walk around the halls of Congress. Their stature is biggest at the local level, where they can get the attention of those in power and ask them to sit down with members of that community.

Should players advocate for a single, specific issue, or should they adopt a full slate of initiatives?

Judy Smith (Founder, president and CEO of Smith & Company, and inspiration for the protagonist of the TV series “Scandal”): I would choose two — maybe three — issues that the players can consistently drive. Those initiatives should be introduced in very clear and concise terms that resonate with the public. Repetition in messaging is important as well as coordination. Everyone struggles to get through the clutter. NBA players should continue to use their voices to advocate for social change and justice.

ISSUES

Social justice is a broad movement that encompasses many facets of day-to-day life. Effective activism requires not only a broad message but often a focus on specific issues.

Are there social justice issues beyond policing that NBA players can bring attention to?

Reginald Dwayne Betts (Founder, The Million Book Project): We absolutely need to have players using the tremendous platform that they have to reach as many people as possible. We want to draw attention to police violence, but players could also broaden how we address these problems because they’re so intertwined. Incarceration is intimately connected to communities in America being overpoliced. Right now, we still have too many people that are in prison. And we see in the crisis with COVID that is so intense, that the NBA has to go into a bubble to have a season. But what does that mean for people who are currently incarcerated, when eight out of the 10 hotspots in the country for COVID exist at one point are in prisons and jails?

The voices of players are also needed doing the kind of work that Maya Moore spent a year doing — getting people out of prison that do not belong. But you don’t have to give up a season. If you find value in the notion that people can redeem themselves and people deserve the opportunity of freedom, you can ask, “How can I lend myself to an organization that is doing this kind of work?”

What’s a specific criminal justice reform issue NBA players could emphasize?

Tracey Maclin (Professor at Boston University School of Law): Players could advocate for the elimination of what are known as pretextual traffic stops. The police can’t stop an automobile unless they have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Those standards are satisfied if police have a reasonable belief that a traffic offense has been committed. Now, people commit traffic offenses constantly without being aware.

So what police do is they engage in what are known as pretextual stops. In other words, they use the traffic offense as a pretext to pull over the car. They then use the pretextual stops as fishing expeditions, typically for drugs, but often for guns and other illegalities. Black people are subject to a disproportionate number of pretextual stops — both Philando Castile and Sandra Bland were pretextual stops.

Players could say, “We want the legislature of Wisconsin or California to ban both local and state police departments from engaging in pretextual police stops. Period.”

How deeply do NBA players need to educate themselves in the intricacies of criminal justice reform?

Randall Kennedy (Michael R. Klein professor of law, Harvard Law School): One should not expect athletes to be experts in problems involving the administration of criminal justice. There are people who have a demonstrated history of being involved in legislative activity, in litigation, in public education the way these elite players work on their games. The players have stature and some degree of financial resource, and what they are doing has been fantastic. They should link up with those who are knowledgeable and have a track record — and who could use the help.

Is there pending legislation that addresses the immediate concerns of NBA players?

Representative Karen Bass (Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus): The players should know about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and how it will specifically change things fundamentally. It was passed on a bipartisan basis in the House [of Representatives], and needs to be brought up for vote in the Senate. The players could play a role in helping bring pressure on the Senate.

Now, it’s not just about Congress. The reforms that are in that bill can be implemented on a state or local level, anywhere and everywhere. The act has multiple components, and it might be that it won’t fly in, for example, the state of Georgia to remove qualified immunity, but maybe they can ban the chokehold. Maybe they can ban no-knock [warrants]. Maybe they can have a statewide registry.

STRATEGY

The world of pro sports brings together diverse stakeholders — from municipal governments to billionaire owners to the millions of residents who live in the shadow of arenas and stadiums. Achieving change often means finding mutual interest even when there are opposing goals.

How can NBA players broaden their scope by expanding their alliances?

Karen Boykin-Towns (Senior counselor, Sard Verbinnen & Co., vice chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors): Right now, aggressive policing and criminal justice are a burning platform. But we also find ourselves an economy that is cratering in the middle of a pandemic, and are seeing crises in both education and health care. While it would be great to be able to focus on one issue and drive that home, we have to be able to walk and chew gum.

There are 30 teams — enough where players can identify those issues where there’s specific passion, experience and expertise. What if this were organized across sports in a specific state or city — NBA, WNBA, MLB, NFL? Because what the Milwaukee Bucks did on Wednesday night rippled across other sports instantaneously. We are in a time of despair and loss, but that was a ray of light.

How can NBA players pull in private partners to effect local change?

Marlon Marshall (Founding partner, 270 Strategies): Teams are anchors in their communities — economically and politically — and are connected to so many other institutions. All over every NBA arena, there are the names of local sponsors and advertisers. Why not bring the sponsors to the table? They have a financial stake in the local economy, just as the team does. If there’s a police reform bill before the city council, steer these businesses toward a local grassroots effort, everyone pushing in the same direction. As much as any other community stakeholder, NBA players have the leverage to use the team as a local clearinghouse to bring all these interests together — including the local government — to make change. In this effect, NBA players can be both economic and political drivers in their cities.

What should NBA players demand from team ownership and local governments?

Donna Brazile (Former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee): Players must demand changes from the top. They should use their leverage so that when owners want new arenas in partnership with local governments, they can go back to those same governments and say, “We want jobs and opportunities for these kids in the community, who struggle to buy the shoes, who can’t afford tickets. We want to transform these communities. Give minority businesses contracts to sell their goods. Give students internships so they can learn marketing.” These new arenas and stadiums are everywhere, and the communities are now unaffordable. Leverage that power so that people are able to participate in the success of that team. Ensure that the kinds of communities these players come from can accelerate the pace of change. You get justice not by putting out these great ads, but when you’re able to provide opportunity. When you’re able to open doors and create the kind of country you envision, that we should all experience.

Going forward, what’s another way for NBA players to transform the political system?

Marc Morial (President of the National Urban League, former mayor of New Orleans): I could see some in this generation of players wanting to run for public office. There’s a long history of athletes serving in Congress: J.C. Watts, Bill Bradley, Jim Ryun, Jack Kemp, Tom McMillen, Ralph Metcalfe — they’ve all been members of Congress. Many of today’s players are financially comfortable, and they also have social media, which gives you an independent voice. When they want to speak, they can do so in their own words, without filter or interpretation. It’s a powerful tool. They don’t have to hope that the newspaper or television pays attention to them. They don’t have to go write up a press release or say, “I’ll go make a statement and interview with somebody,” and hope someone picks it up. I could see Chris Paul, just to name one.

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