In times of crisis, true leaders step forward.
While effective political leadership has largely been absent, professional athletes – primarily players in the National Basketball Association and Women’s National Basketball Association – have demonstrated that celebrity status, when embraced with a sense of responsibility, can be a catalyst for global change.
The examples of selfless leadership demonstrated by professional basketball players in recent months have almost been too many to mention.
When the NBA season was halted in March, several players – including Kevin Love and rookie Zion Williamson – announced that they would help pay the salaries of stadium employees who found themselves out of work.
After the death of George Floyd, many players risked their health and reputations by participating in protests.
As the NBA and WNBA have resumed play in their COVID-19-free bubbles, the statement “Black Lives Matter” has been front and centre. Players also advocated to be allowed to display social justice messages on their uniforms and the leagues obliged, albeit in a limited format.
At a time when many are asking how we can bring about effective change, players remind us that we need racial justice, equality and education reform. We need to say the names of victims of racial violence and we need to stand up for one another.
Both leagues have strong international components, with players from all over the world and many others who have played outside of North America. They all make it clear that racism is a global issue.
Toronto Raptors star Serge Ibaka is from a former French colony, the Republic of Congo. He wears the phrase, “Respectez biso,” which translates to “respect us.” This message reflects the cultural and linguistic richness of his region, combining French and Lingala to make a powerful statement.
France, like all European colonizers, doesn’t have a stellar record in respecting the rights of Africans. The situation was even worse across the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony where Ibaka’s mother was born.
The exploitation of the African continent by foreign interests continues, as do poverty and violence.
Ibaka clearly understands the global significance of the Black Lives Matter movement. He states, “What is going on in the United States is what is going on everywhere … in Congo, in Africa, in all the countries in Europe, it’s happening too, in different ways. The fight we’re fighting here is bigger than the fight people are thinking [about] because if we can win this fight here, we’re going to change a lot of things around the world.”
Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs also understands the responsibility that goes with his status. He and his family have experienced horrendous racism as Indigenous Australians. Not only has Mills volunteered many hours in his homeland, he has agreed to donate his earnings from the NBA restart – more than US$1 million – to social justice causes in Australia.
WNBA players are also speaking out courageously and have shown a willingness to take on rich and powerful people who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement. League commissioner Cathy Engelbert expressed pride in the players “who continue to lead with their inspiring voices and effective actions in the league’s dedicated fight against systemic racism and violence.”
Many consider basketball, when it’s played well, as the ultimate team game. NBA and WNBA teams demonstrate the amazing synergy that happens when talented people from all over the world come together in an environment of mutual respect.
It’s not only time to recognize the character of these great athletes, it’s time for us to follow their leadership.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.