George Pyle: NBA plays a great inside-out game for justice

According to the story, American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, back in 1846, spent all of one night in jail as punishment for his refusal to pay six years’ worth of poll tax. It was his way of protesting both the Mexican-American War and slavery.

He was visited there by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Apparently, all famous American philosophers knew each other.)

Emerson saw Thoreau in his jail cell and said, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”

Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”

The point The Sage of Walden Pond was making, of course, is that, when injustice is rampant, the sin is to fail to oppose it. (Especially when the penalty is as light as one day in the clink.)

Over the past several days, we have seen how a collection of principled people have, thanks to modern mass media, managed to be both in there and out there, taking a stand against injustice.

Not that the environment that has come to be known as The Bubble is anything like a rustic New Hampshire jailhouse. Not that all the players, coaches and managers of the National Basketball Association who retreated to Walt Disney World to avoid the plague of COVID-19 are exemplars of living simply with a minimum of creature comforts.

But, from the beginning of this experiment in pandemic management -- setting the standard for test, trace and isolate that the rest of the country should be following -- the players and the league have taken great strides to make their endeavor about more than grown men playing a kids’ game.

Some players were rightly worried that such extraordinary steps to protect their huge TV deals and other revenue streams might be so much bread-and-circuses entertainment, distracting them and everyone else from not only the pandemic but also the righteous indignation they and many others feel about still more acts of violence. Violence targeting Black Americans and committed either by police officers or by self-appointed armed thugs who think they are helping the police.

So the NBA courts were emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter.” Jerseys and T-shirts carried social messages. The league and individual players committed significant amounts of money to education and voting rights initiatives in their home communities.

Everyone involved might have felt good about that. Until yet another police officer shot yet another unarmed Black man, this time in Wisconsin, and the NBA players and their allies in management decided what they were doing wasn’t enough. Things weren’t changing. And nobody seemed to care.

So, first, the Milwaukee Bucks players, those from the state where the most recent shooting occurred, decided they just couldn’t play that night. Other players from other teams decided the same thing. The wildcat strike spread to Major League Baseball, on pretty much a game-by-game basis, and to the whole of the National Hockey League.

All those players and teams are back, or soon to be back. Not only is there too much money to be lost if they don’t return, there is also the fact that if all the games and players just go away, they and their cause will fall off the radar and their hopes for real change won’t be fulfilled.

Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” If we want to have fewer riots, we are going to have to have fewer unheard. Which means listening to those we didn’t used to hear. And those we were already listening to now saying important things.

Among the latter are people like Donovan Mitchell, the occasionally astounding star player for the Utah Jazz, who follows up 50-point nights on the court with eloquent and heartfelt tweets. And LeBron James, among the best to ever play the game, who reportedly was ready to just pack in the whole season rather than go on as if everything was OK.

Their energy and money, and those of the teams and owners, are now going to more than woke T-shirts. They are funding education and, of more immediate impact, voter registration and turnout efforts. Including turning the Jazz arena and other NBA venues into polling places, which is a wonderful idea for an election when the ability of voters to stand far apart, and out of the weather, will be very important in driving turnout.

There is no NBA franchise in Boise, so the players might not have heard about what happened — or didn’t happen — there the other day. A bunch of white guys, some of them carrying firearms, overwhelmed parts of the state capitol, not just to protest but to physically block plans by the Idaho Legislature to enact legislation they didn’t like.

There were some arrests. Ammon Bundy, bless his heart, was zip-tied to an office chair and wheeled off to jail. But does anyone — anyone — imagine that if a bunch of Black Lives Matter activists had pulled a similar stunt that the police would not have broken out their tear gas and rubber bullets, if not full assault gear, and launched a violent reprisal?

Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience didn’t end the Mexican-American War, and slavery lasted almost another 20 years. But he didn’t have as many Twitter followers as Donovan Mitchell does.

Keep dribbling, guys. But, please, never shut up.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, can’t play basketball. Maybe that’s why he never shuts up.


Twitter, @debatestate