Whether it’s on the court or in their own communities, NBA players across the league have become politically engaged and organized for action like never before. The intersection of activism and athletics hit a touchstone point nearly a year ago, when the Milwaukee Bucks made the unprecedented decision to sit out of their first round playoff game in the COVID-era bubble. It was a protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man gunned down in the back seven times in front of his children, just 40 minutes away from the arena the Bucks play in. The decision set off a league-wide delay of the postseason and sparked a new commitment from the league and its players to put focus and funding behind some of the biggest issues facing Black Americans today. The NBA Social Justice Coalition works to address racial and social inequality by advocating for policy change at the national, state, and local level. Their most recent focus has been the passage of the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act and moving legislation on voting rights.
James Cadogan, the executive director of the coalition, laid out his vision for the league’s activism wing with EBONY and shared why he believes it’s important for the sports world to take a stand.
EBONY: James, can you give us some background on what the NBA Social Justice Coalition is?
James Cadogan: We have a social impact mission that’s been expressed a number of different ways over the years, starting with NBA Cares, then moving into the NBA Foundation that was launched last year. Now, we have the Social Justice Coalition, which is designed to add to that. Cares does our community engagement, outreach and programming. The Foundation does our direct economic investment, and the Coalition does our policy advocacy work—that started with policing reform and has grown into voting rights and criminal justice. We’re here to do the policy advocacy work for the whole community, from the league office to the team side, representing our players, our governors and all of our constituents.
Something like this is a relatively new thing when we talk about sports leagues. What motivated the NBA to be for something other than just sports?
First, we have a tradition that dates back as far as the founding of this league of social justice activism by NBA players. You look back to Bill Russell, to Oscar Robertson, to Kareem Abdul-Jabar—there are so many folks who have come through the league who stood up for what they believed in at that time, oftentimes at great personal costs. Where we are now and what we’ve seen, not just with the NBA, but across sports, is that there’s actually a national and international reckoning on racial justice and social justice. It’s a reawakening on issues that have been really important, particularly in the Black community for 400 years. Right now, we are actually thinking about how the institutions and the power structures of our society work to actually meet the needs of people and work to meet the needs of community. And sports aren’t immune from that. The coalition board represents; it has five players, five team governors, the commissioner, deputy commissioner, the union, executives and coaches, which is every part of the NBA community. We take the work that was once the prominence of players standing up for what they believed in, and in response to last year’s reawakening on racial justice, to say that we need to actually institutionalize our policy advocacy work, and there needs to be a home for that kind of legislative and policy agenda. It is a natural outgrowth of that tradition within the league that started with the players. And now, we’re taking it on throughout the league community.
When stuff like this happens, there’s a stick to sports crowd out there. Trolls that go online and they say, “I’m not going to watch any more NBA games, because now they’re getting political.” Are there any concerns about that on the league’s end?
No, not at all. At the end of the day there has always been that vocal element to the larger public that says the only people who should engage in public discourse, the only people who should engage in public policy, the only people who should raise their voices, are elected officials. And we know that that’s fundamentally wrong, that each and every one of us is part of this democracy. Democracy is part of this community. It’s incumbent upon us to stand up for what we believe in, whenever we feel like it makes sense and when we feel or see something that is wrong. Being able to call it out and say that we want to do better and we expect better, whether it’s from our elected officials, whether it’s from law enforcement or whether it’s from each other, is incredibly important. There’s always going to be a six to stick to sports crowd, the folks who think the status quo should stay the same and that athletes should shut up and dribble. That’s a long standing counterweight against social justice movements. But what we’ve seen decade over a decade, whether you trace it back to the 1960s, or even before that, is that the most effective movements are ones where folks take advantage of their positioning in society. And that can be as a sitting elected official, it can be as a community advocate and a grassroots leader, it can be as a business executive, or it can be as a celebrity or an athlete. And we have all of those, those different positions represented throughout our NBA community. We are trying to make sure that we push the understanding of what it means to be a good corporate citizen as well as a good individual citizen at this time.
Where do you see the Social Justice Coalition’s impact being made?
We have three principal priorities. Number one is policing reform. Number two is voting rights. Number three is criminal justice. We’re in this moment of productivity, which is really important for us to be engaged with and to keep pushing on. We’ve seen the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act developed over the course of the past year, and now we are in final negotiations that we hope will get to a consensus bipartisan bill and get passed. We came out in full throated support of that because accountability for police misconduct is an important step in setting the frame for what police reform can look like. With voting rights, the last year more than 20 NBA facilities were made available as polling and registration locations throughout the 2020 election cycle. That is a big investment of capital and physical plant, because it is the right thing to do to ensure that every American has free and fair and open access to the ballot and the ability to cast their vote. That’s a nonpartisan idea. And then on criminal justice, we’ve known for that our criminal justice complex has metastasized over the course of 30 years. It’s grown exponentially and has become a behemoth that has to change. This is the stuff that I’ve worked on for most of my career. But over the course of the past 10 years, we’ve seen this political consensus around the need to do something differently. That is a big step because we know the effects of the criminal justice system are borne disproportionately by Black and Brown communities. To be able to attack some of that, in those three areas with our coalition, then using the extraordinary platform generated by the NBA players in this community, is truly special.
How can those of us who watch the NBA—the fans—support the work of the NBA Social Justice Coalition?
It’s such a great question. I start from this position as a fan myself. The thing that I like to say is people have more power than they think they do. Stepping into the fray, it can be an intimidating idea to say, “well, how can I get involved?” What we do in advocacy is raise our hands and say, “we think there’s something that could be done differently; something that can be done better; or, there’s a wrong that needs to be righted. Decisions are made by the people who show up and engage in that process of public policy. And I believe, we can do better by educating ourselves about the issues that we’re concerned about; but not letting that knowledge be a barrier in any way to us speaking up when we see something that is wrong, or something that can be done better. That’s where it all really starts. And that’s no different in the halls of Congress than it is at your kitchen table with your family when you’re negotiating issues with your brother, your mother, or your sister. That’s what we want to see. We want more political participation. We want more civic engagement. That’s why it starts with voting. But it emanates into every single policy sphere, raising your hands, speaking up, getting engaged and getting involved. Finding out where in your home community you can help is the first and most important step. Everything else grows from there.