“I don’t really care about that right now, to be honest with you.”
That’s what Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet had to say when asked about the upcoming playoff series against the Boston Celtics. For VanVleet, Norman Powell, and the rest of their teammates, the focus in Tuesday’s practice was on Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Sunday.
VanVleet and Powell, both in a state of visible distress, spoke at length about the NBA’s efforts to further the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of yet another police shooting, both players pushed for increased efforts beyond signage, jersey messaging, campaigning and kneeling during anthems. The next steps are still be determined, but the idea of a boycott is among the actions being discussed.
“Playing or not playing puts pressure on somebody. For example, this happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Would it be nice in a perfect world, we all say we’re not playing, and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, that’s going to trickle down,” VanVleet said. “If he steps up to the plate and puts pressure on the district attorney’s office, the state attorneys, governors, and politicians to make real change and get some justice. I know it’s not that simple, but at at the end of the day if we’re going to sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re going to have to put our nuts on the line and put something up to lose rather than just money, or visibility.”
Regardless of what the players ultimately decide, the consensus is that their current actions aren’t enough. Not just in terms of spreading their message in the media, but the entire social justice push by the NBA. This was a larger discussion in May, when many players faced a moral judgement between coming back to play and trying to use that platform to affect change, or if it would be more effective to sit out altogether. The vast majority ultimately decided to play, but some, including Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill, have changed their minds.
“Theres a lot of things being talked about in how to approach this sensitive issue. I think everybody is at a point of saying Black Lives Matter, sitting up having these discussions in Zoom calls, putting apparel on, that’s not getting the job done. Taking a knee for the anthem, that’s not getting the job done. It’s starting to get washed out,” Powell said.
Powell and VanVleet also challenged media and fans to take action in their own lives. The point was made that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of Black athletes to live through trauma, while also being expected to be on the front lines in rallying, creating community initiatives, and also being the public face of the movement by repeatedly speaking on the issues.
“At what point do we not have to speak about it anymore? Are we going to hold everybody accountable or are we just going to point the spotlight on Black people or Black athletes or entertainers to say, ‘What are you doing, what are you contributing to the community, and what are you putting on the line?’” VanVleet said.
And to that point, VanVleet issued the same challenge to himself and his fellow players, because everyone’s collective efforts have not been enough. Police brutality continues to be a pervasive issue, accountability is fleeting, and despite pressure being put on politicians, defunding and disarming the police remains a non-starter on both sides of the political spectrum, which means that more lives will be lost.
“What are we willing to give up? Do we actually give a f--- about what’s going on or is it just cool to wear Black Lives Matter on a backdrop or wear a T-shirt? Like, what does that really mean? Is that really doing anything?” VanVleet said.
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