By Stacy M. Brown
As we prepare to enter 2022, the national focus on “social justice,” ranging from voting rights to criminal justice reform, environmental justice, health care equality and economic equity, continues to be a priority for professional sports across America. There is a growing hope that the new year will witness more progress in bridging some of the social divides in the nation.
For communities of color who today continue to produce many of the star athletes in the sports industry, the outcries for freedom, justice and equality have had a transformative impact on the commitments of sports’ owners and leaders.
While federal lawmakers, as well as those in state legislatures, work to craft solutions to protect voting rights and other important reforms, many observers are reminded about the significant role America’s professional sports leagues have and can play in advancing the clarion call for social and racial justice.
When the National Basketball Association (NBA) resumed its 2020 season following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, it was immediately evident NBA players and team personnel felt the lingering effects and decided to take action.
Players wore Black Lives Matter shirts, masks, and the Toronto Raptors even wrapped their team bus with the phrase that resonated globally.
The NBA painted “Black Lives Matter” on many of their respective courts, while the NFL’s opening day activities included the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem.
Notably, the Phoenix Suns stood at the forefront in providing a ringing endorsement to the phrase, and the team immediately put change in motion.
Suns superstar and NBA Players Union President Chris Paul led the discussions with league officials, resulting in players wearing social justice slogans on their jerseys.
The slogans were unmistakable and included “Say Their Names,” “I Can’t Breathe,” and “Justice Now.”
As 2021 ends, the Suns and the NBA have cemented their legacy among all professional sports leagues as pioneers and activists for social justice change.
Paul had previously joined stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade in speaking about the importance of athletes using their vaunted platforms to cry out for freedom, justice, and equality.
Back in 2010, when Arizona lawmakers passed the anti-immigration SB 1070 into law, the Phoenix Suns and other organizations cringed with disapproval. The law made it a crime for anyone to visit Arizona without proper documentation.
In addition, it required local police to check the legal status of suspected undocumented immigrants – a method akin to the unpopular stop-and-frisk laws in some municipalities around the country.
The ACLU described the bill as a “discriminatory law” that “invites racial profiling of Latinos and others who may look or sound “foreign,” including many U.S. citizens who have lived in American their entire lives.”
The Phoenix Suns profoundly expressed disapproval.
During a high-profile playoff game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Suns wore “Los Suns” – The Suns, in Spanish – on their jerseys.
Sun’s owner Robert Sarver didn’t hesitate to speak out against that racially discriminatory bill.
“The gesture, which came with the blessing of the NBA and the league’s players union, reflects Sarver’s belief that passing Senate Bill 1070 was not “the right way to handle the immigration problem, Number 1,” NPR quoted Sarver as saying.
“Number 2, as I read through the bill, it felt to me a little bit like it was mean-spirited, and I personally just don’t agree with it.”
The Suns noted that the NBA holds an extraordinary power that other leagues do not have by supporting its players, owners, and other related personnel to use their platforms to stand against social injustices. The league not only supplies them the platform to do so, but it also protects those platforms.
“We have a strong employee base that has been working behind the scenes to advise and recommend different ways that we can activate employees and get our players involved,” said Dean Stoyer, the Suns chief marketing and communications officer, told reporters in 2020.
“The first step publicly that we’re making is around the vote.”
The Suns have prioritized educating voters and the team provided a space for citizens to cast their votes.
“We are not just here to play basketball, and we feel like something has to be done, and it’s time,” then-Suns point guard Ricky Rubio wrote in a social media post.
“It’s been far too long, and I stand right next to my teammates and the whole league to use this platform to bring awareness and come up with ideas and solutions. … We have to fight for a better world and stand up (to) what is wrong.”
Cronkite News, which airs on PBS-TV in Arizona, noted that Suns owner Robert Sarver had advocated social justice and criminal-justice reform.
“Sarver educates and speaks with his players about the subject and encourages them to get involved,” Stoyer said.
“Our focus right now is on voter education, registration, and activation around the vote,” Stoyer added. “And we’ve got a lot of work to do to figure out what our next steps will be.”
The NBA provided teams the flexibility to take those steps in a way that best suits their community, “giving us the freedom to figure out what works best here and how we can tackle the social justice issue best within our market with our fans and utilize our players.” Stoyer continued.
“I think it’s been one of the most important first steps that will make this all successful.”