This moment feels different. Over the last three weeks, cities large and small have rallied to mourn George Floyd. His death has garnered widespread and near universal condemnation and forced the country to have a national conversation about not just police brutality, but race and equality on larger terms.
In a rapid shift from previously equally divided sentiments, one poll reported that 76% of Americans believe racism and discrimination are a major problem, with 68% of those surveyed supporting the protests. Halfway around the world, Japanese protesters have filled the streets of Tokyo shouting “Black Lives Matter.” Even with the COVID-19 pandemic possibly hitting a second wave, the movement has commanded absolute attention from mainstream media.
This moment feels different because it is different. And that’s not lost on Kyrie Irving.
As some NBA analysts and fans anticipate a July 31 return to normalcy, Irving has reportedly pushed pause to spearhead a larger conversation about whether or not a return to “normal” is worth it with his fellow players. With momentum growing for real social change, would professional basketball be a distraction?
It’s a fair question to ask. Imagine post-game interviews dominated by Black Lives Matter discussions rather than arguments on who should win MVP or if a key play was a block or charge. Debating coaching decisions can take a back seat to promoting voting initiatives. Networks, politicians, and commentators shied away from politics amid the Colin Kaepernick protest in 2016. Two years later, Laura Ingraham’s now infamous “shut up and dribble” comments on Fox News target LeBron James. The NBA has always been fairly progressive, particularly under Silver, and if they returned in this proposed bubble, Irving seems intent on ensuring that that discussion is as crucial as the COVID safety measures.
Anti-racism books have rocketed to the top of bestseller lists with social and racial consciousness on the top of everyone’s minds. The city of Boston has shifted money from police overtime funds toward public health. Minnesota is mulling the merits of divesting from policing toward other public initiatives. and LeBron James asked whether the well-intentioned sentiment of simply hitting the ballot box has its own racial limitations. And amidst it all, police brutality continues in plain sight. Atlanta police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. The city’s police chief has since resigned and Brooks’ death has been ruled a homicide.
This moment feels different because it is different.
Irving turned heads Friday night in a league-wide call where he emphasized the importance to spur change. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Irving said, “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bull&%#*. … Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”
He argued that the continued absence of basketball and other forms of entertainment have focused efforts by advocates and agents of change, including some of the NBA’s biggest stars. Dwight Howard backed him. Lou Williams took to Instagram to echo Irving’s message. We still have not heard directly from Irving on this matter, adding to difficulties in parsing his stance fully.
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote in a skeptical assessment of Irving’s comments, the players stand to lose over $1 billion if the 2019-2020 season was scrapped completely. The CBA would certainly need to be renegotiated, leading to potential labor disruption and ripple effects for middle and lower level players and their future salaries.
Irving isn’t alone. Malcolm Brogdon, who marched with Jaylen Brown in Atlanta, confirmed on JJ Redick’s podcast that several players continue to express interest in sitting out, not just because of the social climate, but for their concerns over COVID-19; Silver has said teams can arrange agreements for players to stay home.
Interesting convo between JJ and Malcolm Brogdon (whose another VP) on how to best serve the BLM movement. pic.twitter.com/iSH5Fx6LnM— Maria (@TheMariaShow_) June 13, 2020
This moment feels different because it is different. For Irving, he’s simply continuing the conversation and giving other players the platform now. We’ve all referred to sports as a welcome distraction in the past. Irving knows now is no time for that, with momentum and public pressure working against politicians in an election year. We’re certainly all headed to a new normal in a post-COVID-19 world but hopefully, that will also include at leastsystemic racism.
In this movement, I see signs that parts of society are beginning to look more to the future and less to reclaiming an old way of life. In thinking about the tension between the past, the present, and the future, I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to grieve the life we once knew, and to shift our mindsets to radical acceptance of our present reality in order to create a new normal that is better than our pre-pandemic life.
Irving is trying to embrace this “radical acceptance” and maybe he’s an imperfect spokesman. In his final season with the Celtics, his criticism of the NBA media and its coverage fell on deaf ears. But for all of Irving’s bluster, there’s a truth he speaks if you ignore all the noise and just listen. Late Monday, the coalition of players that Irving and another former Celtic, Avery Bradley, released a statement, expressing in part, “we are truly at an inflection point in history where as a collective community, we can band together — UNIFY — and move as one. We need all our people with us and we will stand together in solidarity.”
The NBA needs to attempt a return, for the good of all involved now and in the future. Irving isn’t necessarily trying to burst its bubble. To some, Irving’s role may appear as dissent, but his goal is unification on and off the court. He’s just trying to ensure that we don’t just turn the page and our backs on everything that is happening right now. Maybe Kyrie isn’t exactly the agent of change we expected, but he’s an agent for further conversation—he always has been—and for now, that’s important enough.