Sport sociologists like Harry Edwards have long fought against the notion that sports and politics can be kept separate, battling back against assaults by people like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who in February 2018 told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” In the midst of the NBA and WNBA finals, and at a time of intense political polarization, basketball fans ought to be aware of the stakes that exist for Black athletes and listen to their voices. How else can you as a fan ethically focus on the games if many of your favorite players say that they themselves cannot? In this brief essay, we offer some considerations for basketball fans today, building upon the work of many sports sociologists who have come before us.
But before we look forward, let us take a brief step back. In March, the NBA suspended play amid the global pandemic, while the WNBA delayed its start. In May, the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis unleashed some of the largest Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to date, where many NBA and WNBA players joined in among the protesters. In early June, NBA team owners proposed a plan to bring basketball to a Disney World “bubble” in Orlando with no live fan attendance, which they promised would have safeguards to prevent virus transmission. Later that month, a 113-page NBA manual detailing health rules to thwart virus spread was leaked, amidst controversy among some players that a summer return to play, even if carefully managed, might hamper the work that players were doing to advance the BLM movement. Ultimately, professional basketball returned with the NBA and WNBA in July, and many fans like us found ourselves reinvested in the sport as never before.
With high-flying dunks and bombs-away threes, we realized what we had been missing. For almost a month, basketball was back. Then, all of a sudden, the games were gone again, but this time they were suspended for a different reason—a different kind of “pandemic.” On August 26, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a crucial playoff game against the Orlando Magic, telling the press that they were protesting the senseless maiming of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bucks’ strike led others in the NBA and WNBA to do the same, and both league’s playoffs seemed to be in jeopardy. Ultimately, the players struck a deal with the league to return to play, but only on the condition that several basketball arenas would be used as voting locations and that a league-wide social justice coalition would be formed.
Since Harry Edwards’ 1969 The Revolt of the Black Athlete, sports sociologists have highlighted the tension that exists in a society that devalues Black lives but elevates Black athletes in certain sports. In this context, Black basketball players, by virtue of their physical abilities and elevated status in society, occupy a unique social position with a powerful political platform the likes of which most American Blacks have never known. And, laudably, many of them are using the media’s microphones as megaphones, their social media feeds for advancing social justice, and their public power as leverage to advance the agenda of the BLM movement. They know that outside of sports, the lives of less athletically talented African Americans are simply not valued to the same degree.
The events of 2020 have brought racial inequality into clearer focus for many people, as numerous African Americans have been killed by the hands of white police officers. But make no mistake: Floyd’s murder and Blake’s maiming were just the latest horrors done unto Black men in America, patterns of institutionally-condoned violence that stretch back to the days of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow. The lives of Black men—and women like Breonna Taylor—have simply never mattered as they should.
So what about our role as basketball fans? On one hand, the return of basketball was welcome news – for us. But as human beings, we know this is selfish. If we keep watching the games, but do nothing to fight the racism on which their protests are focused, or do nothing to combat the white supremacist ideology that has been softpedaled by the President and contributes to the ignorance that helps racism endure, then we will have missed our opportunity to be true supporters of our sporting heroes. Without us—the “average” basketball fan—the voices of these players will never be amplified to the degree necessary to achieve real societal progress.
Many fans have traditionally thought of basketball fandom as apolitical. According to this line of thought, you’re supposed to root for a team, a city or region, but never advocate for a political cause. But as basketball fans today, we feel the need to show our support for these players who are clearly prioritizing their values over profits, even at great risk. To properly support the players we root for, we must educate ourselves and help advocate for the causes they are fighting for, such as transforming the nation’s criminal justice system. As we mentioned above, after Blake’s shooting, one of the conditions demanded by players for the season to continue was that NBA arenas would be turned into polling places for the upcoming election. LA Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was seen donning a mask saying “vote” and actively fought against voter suppression, while LeBron James and others started a voting rights group. Our favorite players are not taking their democracy for granted, so neither should we.
America needs change now, and that change must include us as basketball fans. We may not be as talented athletically as our heroes, but our voices, when raised in concert, can also echo not only to the rafters but also out of the arena. When change seems hard to achieve, let us be inspired not only by the dunks and three-pointers made by our favorite players, but by the spotlight that they are putting on the crucial—and inseparable—intersection between sports and politics. Now, amid two pandemics, basketball players are slamming down the cruel idea of “shut up and dribble,” and it is time that we as fans do our part, too.
Aaron L. Miller, PhD teaches at California State University, East Bay, and St. Mary’s College of California. Ziggy Tummalapalli is a senior at Palo Alto High School.