Donovan Mitchell said it was ‘draining’ in Utah. But why?

The former Utah Jazz star’s impending return to Salt Lake City warrants a look back at the critical incidents that shaped his views of the state, and a look ahead at how his words will impact the future.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) "For a Black man in America who plays a professional sport, when you’re supposed to ‘shut up and dribble,’ those type of feelings get exhausting,” said William A. Smith, a professor at the University of Utah’s college of education.

Editor’s note • This is the first of a two-part series reflecting on Donovan Mitchell’s time in Utah, his critiques of the racial culture here, and how his words have impacted some in the state. It contains discussions of racism and suicide. Part 2 is available here.

Donovan Mitchell had two jobs in Utah.

One was being an electric presence on the court, a consistent All-Star who worked to keep the Jazz at least on the fringe of NBA championship contention.

The other was being Utah’s most notable Black voice.

“As a Black male in the state, a prominent Black male in this state, I feel like it’s my job to speak for people who don’t necessarily have a voice,” Mitchell said at one point. “I just want to continue to shed light on things.”

Mitchell was intertwined with the conversation about racism in Utah. Seemingly every time some racist incident of any notoriety occurred in the state, he was asked to weigh in: Russell Westbrook Russell Westbrook again Ja Morant’s family Luc Holdaway Izzy Tichenor

His connection to race in Utah did not end with his trade to Cleveland, though. Ahead of his first game as an opponent of the Jazz, back on Dec. 19, he spoke with Andscape, an ESPN online platform devoted to “exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture.”

He said, in part, that his time in Utah had been “draining” on account of the pushback he got in response to advocating for racial equality and against police brutality. He noted that he found it “comforting” and “refreshing” that there are far more people of color in the stands in Cleveland than there were in Salt Lake City. He added that an experience of being pulled over by a police officer who hassled him until recognizing him made him fearful for the fates of young, Black Utahns who do not share the benefit of his celebrity.

It’s no secret there’s a lot of stuff that I dealt with being in Utah, off the floor. If I’m being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining. It was just draining on my energy. … Man, it was just one thing after another. To receive the amount of pushback I got over the years, it was a lot. … I’m just like, ‘Y’all have no idea.’ I took on a lot because I felt like I could do it. But at some point, it became a lot to have to deal with.”

— Donovan Mitchell, to Andscape's Marc Spears

His words certainly struck a nerve, with seemingly every Utahn feeling either that he spoke some hard truths, or that he was now painting the entire state with a hurtfully broad brush.

Now, though, as Mitchell is set to return to Salt Lake City for the first time, with his Cleveland Cavaliers set to face the Jazz at Vivint Arena on Tuesday, it’s worth asking a few pertinent questions:

• Why did he find it so “draining” in Utah?

• To what extent do other players have this problem?

• Is he right? And if so, what can be done about it?

(Utah Jazz) Donovan Mitchell takes a photograph with the family of Izzy Tichenor, who died by suicide last year. “People sat there and let this continue to get to a point where a 10-year-old girl kills herself,” Mitchell said at the time.

‘Weathering’ history

Blair Hodges is a Jazz fan who, upon seeing the events from the summer of 2020 unfold, started a “Jazz Fans Against Racism” campaign on multiple social media platforms. As a white man, he makes it a point to have difficult conversations with fellow Jazz fans about eliminating stereotypes and covert acts of racism.

In his recent interactions with fans about Mitchell’s comments, he has tried to put them in the player’s shoes, to give them some context about his day-to-day experiences.

“I like to talk to people about this idea of ‘weathering’ — like, if it’s always raining on you; if you’re walking into the wind all the time; or with truck drivers, the left side of their body is way more likely to get skin cancer because it’s sitting at the window of their cab,” Hodges explained. “There are things that happen to people of color in predominantly white spaces that are weathering.

“... There’s this wind in your face, and some people can get used to it and deal with it, but when that wind goes away or it lessens, you’re like, ‘Wow, that feels really good that I’m not walking with 10-pound weights on my boots anymore.’”

Four specific incidents would seem good candidates for explaining Mitchell coming to feel worn down by his time in Utah.

First, on June 19, 2020, ahead of the NBA’s “bubble” restart during the pandemic, Mitchell posted a Juneteenth meme reading, “free•ish since 1865,” eliciting thousands of critical and sometimes vitriolic comments in response. He was accused of becoming a spoiled millionaire, and told how lots of people in lots of places had it worse than Black people in America.

Mitchell noted to Andscape interviewer Marc J. Spears that the bad feelings “first started” there.

Second was his run-in with Utah Senate President Stuart Adams over Mitchell’s public opposition to legislation that would ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory. After the guard spoke out, Adams was recorded telling an audience that the legislature needed to “educate” Mitchell because “I don’t think he really understands what happened.”

Mitchell specifically cited “a state senator saying I need to get educated on my own Black history” as a memorable off-the-court incident.

An interview request was made to Adams to address Mitchell’s critique, but he declined, instead opting to issue a statement: “I would never try to educate Donovan Mitchell on his ‘own Black history.’ From the very beginning, the media misconstrued my comments and misinformed the public. I have great respect for Donovan. Unfortunately, he has received inaccurate information. I would welcome his input if he wants to get involved in the legislative process.”

Third was Isabella Tichenor, aka “Izzy”, the 10-year-old Black, autistic girl from Davis County who died by suicide after being bullied. Mitchell was clearly impacted by her death, expressing anger and frustration at the Davis School District’s lack of action on her behalf: “It’s sad. It’s vile, disgusting,” he said then. “People sat there and let this continue to get to a point where a 10-year-old girl kills herself.”

And fourth would be the police story, previously unknown to the public before Mitchell’s interview with Spears.

(Kevin C. Cox | Pool) Donovan Mitchell warms up before playing against the Memphis Grizzlies in an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. His jersey references the police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Pushback and battle fatigue

When Mitchell’s comments were published last month, there was another wave of online criticism.

One of those was Utah state Representative-elect Trevor Lee, who wrote on Twitter: “No wonder players don’t want to come to Utah. This man was beloved here, and the minute he leaves it’s nothing but bad things to say. What an incredibly ungrateful person.”

Lee is a controversial public figure who was elected in November to represent Utah’s House District 16, a Davis County seat that encompasses most of Layton. In recent days, he has taken a stance against Mitchell.

“You were drained by being here and being so loved? And having your jersey sell out consistently on a year-to-year basis? That was draining for you?” Lee said. “… I didn’t see it, and I think you would be hard-pressed to find a lot of people who did see it. I don’t think it’s a good message from Donovan to say it was ‘draining’ to live here. If that’s draining to you, just because there’s white people around, oof — I don’t know what to tell you. That sucks.”

Darlene McDonald is an author and community activist who once served as chairwoman for the Utah Black Roundtable, and is now a member of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. As a frequent speaker on issues of racism, she cited Lee’s complaints about Mitchell as emblematic of the circumstances that can cause a prominent person of color to get worn down.

“He said that Donovan Mitchell was ‘ungrateful.’ That is a very common phrase that is tossed to African-Americans, especially successful African-American entertainers, athletes who makes a lot of money and speak out on racial and social justice,” McDonald said. “… Who is he being ungrateful to? He has [succeeded] on his own abilities, his own talent. This is what he does. No one is giving him any of it.

“For Trevor to say he’s been ‘ungrateful,’ it is as if he gave Donovan Mitchell something that he did not earn on his own,” she added. “That is one of the most racist things that you can say to a successful person of color.”

McDonald also pointed to Mitchell’s years of publicly addressing social and racial justice, noting that, “You tend to see the same people when it’s time to get called to speak to these issues.” The work can be heavy. It can be traumatic, can wear on you, come to feel like a burden. Even draining, one might say.

Dr. William A. Smith certainly can speak to the emotional and physical toll he believes Mitchell was feeling.

Smith, a professor at the University of Utah’s college of education, has a specific area of expertise: “Racial Battle Fatigue.”

To him, the “draining” referenced is not some hyperbolic phrase, but an actual physical manifestation with very real science behind it.

“From a scientific point, Racial Battle Fatigue is a systemic, racism-related repetitive stress injury,” Smith said. “… What he’s saying is that, for a Black man in America who plays a professional sport, when you’re supposed to ‘shut up and dribble,’ those type of feelings get exhausting.”

Smith and two colleagues are on the verge of submitting a research paper asserting that the human body codes acts of racism as acts of violence, thereby leading to a dramatic cause-and-effect.

“Dealing with racism,” he said, “shortens our lifespan.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thabo Sefolosha said his family had a negative experience while living in Utah.

Compare and contrast

One of the primary questions asked in response to Mitchell’s comments was: Why is this a problem for him when it doesn’t seem to be for other Jazz players?

“My experience being here has been all love down the line,” said guard Jordan Clarkson. “I don’t look at this state or anything that has happened — anything in the past, discrimination-wise, whatever has happened — as a rockiness. I know what has happened, but I feel like everybody in some [way] is trying to change whatever the narrative is.”

“Oh, I’ve had a great experience in Utah. I haven’t had any troubles, I love the people that I’m around,” added Malik Beasley. “And I’ve grown up in all different types of communities, whether that’s Detroit, or Alpharetta, Georgia, so I’m thankful to be a part of a community that’s welcomed me.”

Forward Rudy Gay conceded that while it could be because he likes to keep a low profile and just hang out with his family these days, his time in Utah also has been blissfully uneventful thus far.

“Me personally, I haven’t had too much of that. Maybe because I’m an old fart and nobody cares,” Gay joked. “… I’m sure I’ll come past somebody that’s an a--hole, and I’ll deal with that accordingly, but up to this point, I haven’t.”

Even Mitchell’s former co-star Rudy Gobert told the New York Times that his years in Utah were pleasant: “My family and I never had any bad experiences. I’ve always had a lot of love over there.”

Lee, a lifelong Jazz fan, explained that some of his rhetoric towards Mitchell stemmed from his concern that the commentary was “hurting [the team’s chances of] getting good players here to the state of Utah.”

Gay, however, seemed dismissive of that notion, noting that in his own free agency period in 2021, when he signed with the Jazz, “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t expect Utah to be to New York City anyway.”

He also pointed out some key differences between Mitchell and other players, including himself. The guard was young and more willing to put himself out there, literally and figuratively — he frequently spoke out on social- and racial-justice issues, plus, as the Jazz’s de facto star, Mitchell was in a position to both meet a lot more people (and, by extension, meet a lot more negative people) and be subject to more criticism for the team’s on-court shortcomings.

Still, Jazz players’ experiences in Utah have not been universally good.

In July 2019, forward Thabo Sefolosha ruled out a return to the organization. In a feature story by Swiss publication Neue Zürcher Zeitung, he said the state was simply not a good fit for his family. As translated from German in NZZ:

It’s all about my two daughters and my wife,” he says. Sefolosha wants his family to feel good — which was not the case anymore in the Mormon state of Utah.

In particular, his wife had suffered in the conservative state, in which rigid moral concepts are widespread, and could not develop. “During her career she has always put her own interests and needs behind her and made great sacrifices,” says Sefolosha. Now she has spoken out against another engagement in Salt Lake City.

Thabo Sefolosha, to Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Former University of Utah star Delon Wright, while in town for the Washington Wizards’ annual game in Salt Lake City, said that his own time here was without incident, but also pointed out that his situation wasn’t really comparable to Mitchell’s.

“I wasn’t playing [professionally], I didn’t have a big contract. People will look at him differently when you attach money to it,” Wright said. “It’s unfortunate that he had that experience. I didn’t, but I was only here two years, also; he was here five. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t get that his first two years — then they start to expect more from you.”

(Rick Bowmer | AP) The Utah Jazz have noted strides to increase diversity in the organization, establish a college scholarship program for underrepresented backgrounds and a partnership with historically Black colleges and universities.

Where do we go now?

So … does Mitchell have a point? And if so, what’s the solution?

His ex-Jazz teammates either couldn’t or wouldn’t give any more details about his feelings on Utah.

Clarkson noted that he and Mitchell had conversations “here and there about situations, whatever happened,” but he felt it wasn’t his place to “speak on another man’s experience.”

Gay, meanwhile, said he doesn’t know to what extent, if any, bad encounters with fans shaped Mitchell’s situation. But he added that if that was the case, it’s deeply unfortunate.

“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” he said. “I think he did a lot for the city — he did a whole lot for the city, as far as notoriety, as far as putting on for the city. So if he felt that way, it’s a shame.”

Hodges, who continues to try and change hearts and minds, wishes Lee and others would focus less on the basketball ramifications and more on the societal ones, which he believes are very real.

“Play the long game. [Don’t] have it be about, ‘We want to have a good basketball team,’ but rather, ‘We want to have a good state,’” he said. “Donovan’s gone, but guess what? There’s still Black people living here every day. How many white Utahns are thinking about that? I’m glad for him for helping move the needle, but this is a long-term project that white Utahns in particular really need to spearhead ourselves.”

In his introductory news conference, then-new team owner Ryan Smith was outspoken in saying that the team is “going to be actively anti-racist as an organization.”

Beyond that, a fact sheet provided by the team notes myriad positive trends and programs — “significantly increased diversity within its leadership team and across all levels of the organization,” a partnership with the University of Utah and NBA HBCU programs to offer summer internships to students from HBCU schools, designating Juneteenth as an annual paid holiday for employees ahead of the state naming it a public holiday, and the much-publicized scholarship program for students from underrepresented backgrounds, which ran during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

Jazz officials declined an opportunity to comment on this story.

Still, McDonald praised the team for its progressive behavior.

Now she wants to see two other things: specifically, a racial impact assessment conducted for every proposed bill in the legislature, and, more generally, more willingness to listen.

“In order to move forward in the race conversation, we have to have the race conversation,” she said. “… Donovan Mitchell said, ‘This was my experience in the state of Utah’ — the response to that is not to call him a liar. The response to that is, ‘How can we be better?’”