Opinion: NBA players using their power and influence to try and create meaningful change

As a people, as a country, the idea that American citizens with money and clout would use their influence to bend the system to their interests is not new to us. We see it every day. We accept it without much compliant. We celebrate those who do it as entrepreneurs. We even vote them into office. 

What NBA and WNBA players, followed by some in Major League Baseball, soccer and tennis did on Wednesday night in demanding action on racial justice issues by boycotting games, is really no different. Whatever level of power and privilege they’ve attained through their own skill in sports, they have just as much right to wield it as does the social media magnate lobbying not to be regulated or the real estate tycoon hunting for tax breaks. 

That’s the system, for better or worse. Life is leverage. 

When speaking loudly or protesting in the streets isn’t enough to get our government to take meaningful action that would help prevent the next George Floyd from being murdered or the next Jacob Blake from being shot, this is the next lever to pull. And if NBA players collectively are determined to use whatever influence they have to bring real change to America, it’s the one that had to be pulled. 

Two people familiar with Wednesday night’s players meeting told USA TODAY Sports that the two Los Angeles teams — the Lakers and the Clippers — were against finishing the NBA restart. If that holds through the next tension-filled hours or days, it means LeBron James is out. It means the NBA season is effectively over and the $150 million bubble was burst not by COVID-19 but the collective frustration and exhaustion of having to fight systemic racism themselves because the people in charge aren’t getting the job done. 

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The Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James reacts during Monday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)

The impact of that decision, if it comes to pass, is hard to assess. But the risks are obvious. 

The NBA is already sustaining heavy financial losses amid the pandemic, and a new collective bargaining agreement would literally take money out of players’ pockets. How would players actually mobilize to force the kind of hard, policy-level work that it will take to fix policing in this country and address inequality in so many areas? If the end game is just to go home and wait for things to get better, they might as well stay and finish the season. No matter which path they take, there's a lot to lose. 

But for NBA players to spend so much time and energy earlier this year on the front lines of protests throughout the country, only to be part of this restrictive bubble in Orlando and feel like nothing changed, it’s completely natural that they’d react in the strongest possible terms. 

Now it’s totally up to them how far they want to take it. 

That’s the upside of being a citizen in this country, especially one who can bring a major industry to its knees with a refusal to provide services that are in high demand. Professional sports owners do it all the time when they want tax breaks or arena construction. They have the team, they threaten to take the team away, they either get the machinery of government working for them or they pack up and leave. If you’re that influential in America and willing enough to put it all on the line, you have a decent chance of getting what you want. 

The NBA can’t fix racism, but it's business touches everything from television networks to video games to retail clothing to building operations in major cities. Its owners are among the wealthiest and most well-connected people in the country whose other holdings include internet shopping conglomerates, restaurant chains, mortgage lenders, private equity, real estate and so much more. Their reach is far and wide. This is a group of people who can get something done.

Whether you believe in their cause, that is the true American way. And never before has there been such motivation to marshal those resources into action that goes beyond painting Black Lives Matter on a basketball court or even marching arm in arm with protesters. 

NBA players and many other athletes woke up Wednesday realizing their previous efforts weren’t enough to drive the change they wanted to see. Where does this go and how does it end? Who knows. But being motivated to explore the full reach of their power is the first step toward finding out. 

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