NBA players are overwhelmed working two jobs at once

NBA players are growing frustrated working double-time as basketball players and political activists. They need help.

9 mins read
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Fred VanVleet talks about the police shooting of unarmed Black man Jacob Blake.

Today I watched the video of police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin shooting Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in his back seven times. He is now paralyzed from the waist down. 

After that, I heard NBA players including Raptors’ guards Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell talk about their frustrations with policing in American and their growing unease with the NBA bubble’s failure to affect radical change. 

“It’s just starting to feel like everything’s going through the motions and nothing’s really changing,” VanVleet said.

“I’m frustrated. I’m disappointed. … I’m pretty tired and sick to my stomach that we have to talk about this again,” said Norman Powell. “A lot of things [including a boycott] have been talked about. [BLM messaging and taking a knee is] not getting the job done. It’s getting washed out.”

It’s no wonder the players are overwhelmed: Many NBA players have been working double-time since they entered the bubble in early July, one part basketball players competing for a championship and one part political activists demanding justice for Black people. Don’t get me wrong: these players have chosen to do both jobs at once, but they need some help. 

The fundamental question we must ask ourselves as people who follow the league is this: why do the players find themselves in this situation, where the responsibility of political activism and demanding justice for Black people seems to fall almost exclusively on their shoulders? Why does that same responsibility not exist for the NBA, it’s organizations, it’s broadcast and sponsorship partners, and the media covering the league? The answer, the way I see it, is because the players are Black, and so they don’t have a choice about whether or not they engage with these matters; matters that are close to their hearts and their communities. The league, it’s partners, and the media; they are mostly made up of white men, and those white men have the exclusive privilege of largely ignoring these issues, giving them no more than a line at the top of their piece or a 15-second blurb in the middle of a podcast or broadcast. 

Personally, I might not be writing this piece if I didn’t start my day watching that video. And truth be told, I read about videos like this all the time and only watch a fraction of them because I know watching them takes an emotional toll on me. But many Black people don’t have that choice. They watch these videos because they have to; because it’s an issue that is so close to their hearts and that they relate to on a personal level. They also watch because we tell people that they can only speak out on issues that they are informed about, and so there is an extra added pressure to consume content, no matter how hard it is to consume — no matter how damaging it is to one’s mental health.  

That’s why it’s so important that we white people educate ourselves on these issues and, if possible, watch these videos (however, please do not share them on socials): because they remind us there are more important issues in the world than basketball, even if those issues seem to be an arms-length away. I think it’s my job as a media member who covers the Raptors to write about these issues, because if I don’t — if we don’t — then the sole responsibility to educate the public and analyze how these issues affect Black people falls on the players, who are clearly growing frustrated by the responsibility of working two jobs without any help, as the mental burden becomes potentially unbearable. 

It’s interesting that during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, NBA organizations and the media members covering the league seemed to be actively working towards demanding justice for Black people. Podcasters who normally talk about basketball had activists on to talk about systemic racism in America. Writers explored how racism affects NBA players. Organizations put out statements condemning police violence and donated money towards the causes. Now that basketball is back, those same people have taken their foot off the gas, choosing to focus exclusively on basketball despite the same issues from earlier this summer cropping up again. 

Do I blame them? Yes. I understand that people have a responsibility to their employers to do what they are paid to do, which in the case of the media happens to be analyzing basketball. But all of us can do better, from the Staff Writer who just started covering the league to the Mike Breen’s of the world who have a two and a half-hour broadcast to talk about these issues and to educate an NBA fan base (who we were recently reminded is still very racist) about systemic racism and police brutality. Because if we are not going to talk racist policing in America then we are not going to change it.

Tyler Tynes, a staff writer at The Ringer, recently appeared on “The Ringer NBA Show” to talk about his hometown Philadelphia 76ers flunking out of the playoffs. He began with this powerful message: 

“First and foremost, right, before you even talk any basketball, the idea of where the bubble is right now is something that is — as you see on all the jerseys, on all the courts and everything now — centered around an idea of what Blackness is supposed to be. So it would be a complete miss to talk about the Sixers without talking about [policing in America]… Because if we are not going to actively talk about or think about policing, whether it’s in our sports, whether it’s in our policy, whether it’s in our educational systems, then we are not going to actually change anything for the betterment of the players we enjoy talking about or the systems that we enjoy living and breathing through.”

The last point is key: anyone who enjoys watching basketball games by definition does so because they enjoy watching the players play basketball, and so the betterment of the players’ lives should be at the forefront of every fans’ actions. Without the players, we fans have nothing. 

And so it is the responsibility of everyone who cares about basketball or sports or, ideally, anyone who cares about Black people in general to do the work. The responsibility should not fall solely on the players as it has thus far into the bubble. The players should not have to continue working two jobs without any help. It’s time for the people who follow the league and work alongside it to step up.