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Outside Looking In: What Brands Can do to Help Players Inside the Bubble

There has been recent talk over the past couple weekends about the possibility of the NBA resuming it’s season in a very unique format, essentially it’s own bubble in Disney World, Florida. With that conversation, there comes the risk of being exposed to Covid-19, the fear of the unknown regarding how it will play out, and concerns over how comfortable players will be in this situation. We all have schedules and things we’re used to, so returning to a weird and new “normal” will inevitably be challenging to anyone, so I can imagine this would be the same for the NBA.

Photo by Eric X on Unsplash

With the ongoing protests over police brutality and unjust treatment of black lives, people are starting to realize there is a lot of work to be done. This article is not about that though. It’s about the responsibility people have to make a better community, and the hypocrisy of those who speak out when it seems convenient. I’m talking about those who are choosing to speak out now that it’s the “trendy” thing to do, or those who feel like they will have something to lose if they don’t say anything at all. In my previous article, I spoke about how brands are responding to the public outcry and donating money to various ongoing efforts supporting equality and inclusion, while also becoming more inclusive internally. This has exposed a lot of internal issues and struggle to be diverse and inclusive within their own company. For example, Adidas’s Chief of Human Resources is now being investigated over discrimination issues

Many of us work for companies that we don’t look too deep into, because some of us were not brave enough to address issues, and I suspect that most of us (myself included) were fine with the status quo. We’ve all been a part of something where we could speak up, but we didn’t because we didn’t want to put ourselves on the line. We give excuses and make exceptions all the time. I believe in being yourself and being who you are. As a black man, I know I’ve become used to being the only black man in the room in certain situations, but we need to do more to address why this happens. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of signature NBA athletes had meetings with a room full of brand executives with few, if any, diverse faces. Brands want to work with athletes, so I think athletes have the power to voice these concerns. It’s great brands create marketing efforts and donate towards issues of inequality, but including more diversity in these efforts would make it more meaningful, impactful, and relevant. 

We have protesters demanding a call to action, brands that have no choice but to listen, and in between we have athletes who can bridge the gap between both. Brands may not listen to the people, but it’s a different story for athletes because they have a voice and a platform to make a statement on a level a lot of us can’t. I think some athletes have taken too long to take action because they have been fine with making money and making excuses. It’s easy to let things go when you’re on top. I want to see those with the platform speaking up and continuing to do so even when it isn’t the “cool” thing to do. 

I saw Kyrie Irving make a statement on Instagram recently saying that something is “fishy” about the NBA return, and that our efforts should be focused on addressing systemic racism instead. He’s right that this is an important time to speak out, and a rare opportunity to focus on these issues with sports being on hold, but I don’t think it means efforts to re-start the NBA need to be put on hold. Lives will continue with or without the NBA, so instead of saying let’s not return and focus on the issues at hand, a better idea is continuing to work on issues of systemic racism using this important platform. Athletes are global ambassadors and what they say matters to people around the world. It’s vital to speak up, discuss initiatives they are a part of, and bring attention to some of the protests even if they are unable to attend. Journalists should also ensure they are reporting on more than just what’s happening on the court, because off the court issues matter too. For those going back to the game next month, and for those who are off this season, playing does not affect your ability to speak out and influence change.

Here are my suggestions for athletes wanting to influence positive changes:

  1. Promote a Call to Action
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Players could wear t-shirts with the names of those who have died from their city. Keep their names alive and put faces to those names. People often form bonds with a favorite team over the players and feeling a connection to those players. Athletes, embrace the names of those who have died, keep their stories alive, and do not let this be a temporary call to action. Show this whenever you are in the spotlight to keep this issue in people’s minds. Brands could support this by making the t-shirts and donating the proceeds. NBA players can demand their brands support them in this endeavor by sharing what they are doing on their social media pages. You take time to unbox your shoes, you can take time to unbox systemic racism in our society and within the brand companies you partner with. 

  1. Call it out

Systemic racism is alive and well, and while it’s not an athlete’s responsibility to end it, I do think there’s a responsibility to use their platform in a productive way because people who look just like them are still suffering everyday. Call it out and address it head on. When Steph Curry was pitched on rejoining Nike when his contract was up he said he didn’t feel wanted due the lack of personalization he received at the pitch. His name was pronounced incorrectly and the wrong PowerPoint deck was used. This was clearly a major mistake and there should have been people at that meeting who could relate to Steph and show how valuable their partnership is. I think having people in the room who can relate to these athletes and some of their experiences would be a solid start to showing the athlete’s voice will be heard. Steph and other elite players need to consider the diversity in the room when they go into those pitch meetings and ask how many black and brown faces are looking back at him when the brand is discussing his future and marketing efforts in his community. That’s the energy we need to see from these players –  call out your brands if you see they are not doing enough efforts to be inclusive. Go into the pitch meeting to discuss the Dame 7’s and you only see one black face, call their ass out. If you can call out your president, the CEO of your company and other Hall of Fame players and coaches, you can call out your brand. Bring that same energy even when money is on the table.

  1. Do more in the community
Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

One great thing I saw during All-Star weekend in Chicago this year was Adidas’ idea to have a session allowing kids to design their own shoes. That was a great way to make a difference and give kids a fun and rewarding experience. I know a lot of athletes do community work, so I’m not about to say it doesn’t happen, but I encourage players to always think about where they can step in and use their voice in a powerful way. For example, addressing problems with voting. Lebron James recently funded a non-profit called More Than A Vote to help address issues people in black communities face with voting inequalities. Past and current players Jalen Rose, Trae Young, and Skylar Diggins-Smith have also taken part in this non-profit. This is an opportunity for athletes to make brands get on board to help promote these efforts and donate to them. Brands just saying they are donating isn’t enough, hold them accountable to explain exactly where the money is going and how it is benefiting our communities. While Lebron, Dame, and Kawhi are playing in the bubble, Steph, Trae, and Kyrie can participate in the protests either with their time or money. Have ongoing personal discussions with their brands about inclusion efforts and work outside the bubble to make sure steps and progress are being made so when the NBA season is over, bubbled players can immediately latch on to the efforts that have begun and help complete them. 

To sum it all up…

I don’t expect NBA players to defeat systemic racism, but I encourage and ask for their voices to speak up, not just now, but going forward. Address it when you see it, and question your brands on how they can be better. Athletes are a huge deal to brands, and I think if they are going to listen to anyone, it’s going to be them. As a brand ambassador, you have a buy-in to the politics in the company, don’t let this advantage slip away due to inaction. Leverage your voice, bring attention to these important issues, and take action. Kaepernick’s kneeling did a lot more than any amount of money could do to address racism in our society by calling attention to injustice, and people noticed. 

Hope you liked reading my article. If you have an opinion, please comment below or share!

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