How the Utah Jazz and Donovan Mitchell helped address racial inequity after George Floyd’s murder

Players say they are proud of the progress that has been made to address racial inequities, but Donovan Mitchell notes that ‘our foot is still on the gas’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Referee James Capers tells Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) he must leave the court as the Utah Jazz take on the Memphis Grizzlies during Game 1 of the first-round playoffs at Vivint Arena, May 23, 2021.

As the NBA constructed its plan to resume its season in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in 2020, several players wondered: Would an NBA bubble help or hinder players’ efforts for social justice reform?

Indeed, one unnamed player told ESPN, “Once we start playing basketball again, the news will turn from systemic racism to who did what in the game last night. ... We are asking ourselves, ‘Where and how can we make the biggest impact?’”

A year later, how successful was the NBA in making an impact? The answer depends on whom you ask; but, generally, there’s a pride in what was accomplished, and an acknowledgment of goals not yet reached.

As perhaps the state’s highest-profile business, the Jazz have been at the forefront of the conversation in Utah. No local player has been more vocal on pushing social justice reform than the Jazz’s star guard Donovan Mitchell.

“We did a lot as far as the NBA and WNBA. I think a lot of leagues came together, and people came together. I think we’ve done a great job, kind of uniting in a sense and creating those uncomfortable conversations that needed to be had,” Mitchell said. “I think the best part that I’m happy about is that the foot is still on the gas as far as continuing to have those conversations. It hasn’t died down.”

Maybe the most successful project a Jazz player was involved in was the short “Two Distant Strangers,” which was co-produced by Jazz point guard Mike Conley. The film won an Oscar for Live Action Short Film, drawing positive reviews for its frank depiction of a Groundhog Day-like scenario in which a Black man couldn’t escape being killed by police.

“If there is ever an example of someone taking action to create change, to spur a conversation, this is it,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said of Conley’s film. “It’s an unbelievably impactful example of that process.”

The Jazz’s organization also made headlines with its minority scholarship program. The team gives one college scholarship to an in-state university to a Utah high school senior of color for every Jazz win.

That program, though, became controversial to some. After a radio caller asked Utah Gov. Spencer Cox about the program, he defended the scholarships, saying, “Looking for ways to lift communities that have been historically and disproportionately impacted isn’t racist at all. In fact, it’s a great way to overcome racism. And I’m really proud of the Jazz and the great things that they’re doing.”

That garnered criticism from Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, among other right-wing pundits. “There are a lot of dumb people in this country. The problem is when they become governor,” Carlson said of Cox.

To this point, there have been 55 wins, therefore 55 scholarships to students. Last week, the team had its players tell the first 30 students chosen about the scholarships won; the students reacted in delight in a video that went viral nationwide.

“You saw we just gave 55 scholarships to kids going to college,” Mitchell said. “That means the world to myself, to us. That to me is part of change.”

In recent weeks, the conversation has shifted toward discussion of critical race theory, and whether it should be taught in schools. The Utah Legislature passed a nonbinding resolution opining that school districts shouldn’t teach the subject — nebulous though its definition may be — during a special session last week.

Mitchell derided the move.

“It’s unfortunate that’s a conversation that’s had. I think the biggest thing, the part that I really stand for, is education — and being able to educate our children on racial history, I think, is huge,” Mitchell said. “So when I tell a child that people were enslaved for 400 years, them understanding what that means is huge — understanding that there’s definitely discrimination in this country, there’s prejudice, there’s racism.”

The implementation of any formal changes in curriculum is likely to be a battle moving forward, one that Mitchell says he’s not afraid to wage.

“I’m going to continue to do what I do, and be a voice. I know my teammates are, I know guys around the league are,” Mitchell said. “I feel like we can control what we can control in that instance; we’re just trying to find ways to be the best group of human beings for our future and for our children as we can be.”

Conley agreed with Mitchell.

“Last year, we saw just so many people of different ethnicities and backgrounds, on the streets and coming together to try to create change,” Conley said. “It wasn’t only in that moment, but is something that is still going on today. We’re still keeping on pushing and educating.”