NBA plays leading role during coronavirus pandemic and racial reckoning

“I think there is a unique role that we can play in society, a position that sports has often played. We are part of the psyche of our country, the world for that matter, and I recognize that when we went off the air last Wednesday night it was a larger decision than just the NBA.” — Adam Silver, NBA commissioner

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said this to Rachel Nichols, host of ESPN’s The Jump, on March 18, a week after announcing the suspension of league play because of safety concerns over the emerging coronavirus pandemic. This same sentiment can be applied to the current state of social unrest sweeping the nation in the past few months after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The NBA again is playing a leading role as the league prepares to resume play during both a global pandemic and a racial reckoning going on around the country and across the globe.

Through all this stress and uncertainty, Silver has made decisions that take into consideration the well-being of players and the status of the NBA. In addition, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, has gone so far as to give his own sign of approval for the “bubble” campus concept in Orlando, Florida, where NBA games are scheduled to restart next week.

At the same time, the NBA has supported increased calls from players for support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Silver and the rest of leadership at the NBA have long supported players when they raise their voices for change. The league has painted “Black Lives Matter” on the game court in Orlando, and is allowing players to wear social justice messages on their jerseys.

Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, died of complications from the coronavirus, participated on May 29 in a George Floyd rally at the Minneapolis City Hall with community leaders. Even though Towns did not speak at the rally, his presence was felt in the city where he lives and plays basketball.

Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics took a stand, leading a peaceful protest in his community of Marietta, Georgia. Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon joined Brown and spoke to the crowd, saying, “I got a grandfather who marched next to Dr. King in the ’60s and he was amazing. He would be proud to see us all here. We have to keep pushing forward.” Brown and Brogdon both serve as National Basketball Players Association vice presidents. Players are using their platform and voices to express how they feel about the social injustice that it is happening in our society today.

Among others engaged in peaceful protest were the Philadelphia 76ersTobias Harris and Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard. Washington Wizards players John Wall and Bradley Beal joined demonstrations in the Washington area. New York Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. protested in his hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and D’Angelo Russell of the Minnesota Timberwolves protested in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police who used a battering ram to enter her apartment.

Thursday, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its 2020 National Basketball Association Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). The NBA continues to set the bar when it comes to racial and gender hiring within male professional sports. The NBA again earned an A+ on the issue of racial hiring, and a B for gender hiring practices, giving the league an overall grade of an A- in the 2020 RGRC.

Each year, we discuss these issues with Adam Silver; Kathy Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs; and Oris Stuart, executive vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer. This 2020 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) continues to reflect the NBA’s commitment to building the most diverse and inclusive environment among all the men’s professional sports leagues. The overall grade for the 2020 NBA RGRC is 89.1 points (an A-), a slight decrease from 89.8 last year because of a grading change to include team CEOs and presidents.

The CEO/president positions have been held primarily by white men. TIDES believes grading this position holds teams more accountable in finding ways to increase diversity within these key positions that are ultimately responsible for developing and executing the overall strategy and operations of the clubs within each league.

The number of owners of color increased from three (8.6%) last year to four (11.4%) this year, including one African American, two Asians and one listed as “Other.” This is the highest percentage of owners of color in the report’s history or in any men’s professional sports league. The number of women as majority and controlling owners increased from four (11.4%) last year to five (14.3%) this year. This is the highest percentage since the 2013 report.

The NBA league office continues to excel with more than 39% people of color and over 40% women.

At the start of the 2019-20 season, before the COVID-19 shutdown, NBA teams had nine (30%) head coaches of color. As play was about to resume, there were 10 coaches of color at the helm of their teams. The percentage of assistant coaches of color increased from last year to more than 45%. The NBA also saw the percentage of players of color increase from 81.9% to 83.1% this year. At one point during the year, the New York Knicks had professional sports’ only Black trio at the top that included the team’s president, general manager and head coach.

The percentage of people of color among general managers increased from 26.1% in the 2018-19 season to 28% as this season began, marking a 24-year all-time high. As of July 8, 2020, there were 10 general managers of color, bringing the percentage up to 40%, with Black or African-American GMs representing 32% of all general managers. The NBA leads all men’s professional leagues in this position.

Even with strong grades year in and out, the NBA still has some work to do in a few key categories. Representation at the CEO/president level remains below 11% for both women and people of color. Even though the NBA’s percentages in that category are higher than those in all other men’s leagues, they are still unacceptable for such a diverse league. For several years there also has been a lack of women in senior team leadership positions.

There are now nine women as assistant coaches, up from three last year. Becky Hammon, assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, has racked up many accolades as a trailblazer for women in the NBA, and she is always mentioned when there is talk of who could become the first woman head coach in the league. Hammon was the first woman to interview for a head-coaching position in the NBA. I am confident there will be a woman head coach in the NBA soon.

Other professional sports leagues need to find ways to mirror what the NBA has done and continues to do within this space. What would the professional sports industry look like if all the leagues were to welcome women into their leagues? What would the industry look like if positions for which women have been overtly and subtly excluded from realizing their dreams, aspirations and opportunities, were opened to them? What would the industry look like if women coaching men’s teams was normalized? We are not that far away from this. Silver and the NBA see this as the future. Will the rest of the industry see it?

The NBA is a player-driven league and the NBA has done its part in encouraging its players to speak out with their opinions. Now so many players are demanding societal change. The same is happening in the WNBA, for which a race and gender report card will be forthcoming.

I envision players turning their attention to who runs their teams. I have no doubt that if they speak out for more women and people of color in the C-suites and in ownership, that will hasten change.

I am grateful that Silver and the NBA not only allow but also encourage players to use their voice and platform to speak out on certain issues that resonate with them. Their voices are amplified because they have a great leader in Silver who believes in them.

Ivan Hudson and Nicholas Mutebi contributed to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.



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