To the relief of sports heads everywhere, the NBA is officially back in business. However, it looks very different than the sport we’ve all known and loved throughout the course of our lives.
Players, coaches and referees are kneeling during the national anthem, “Black Lives Matter” is printed on the court, and instead of chatting about box scores, our favorite athletes are redirecting their interviews to rail against institutional racism and its offspring, police brutality.
On the eve of its return, The Root spoke to ESPN analyst Jay Williams to discuss the league’s emphasis on racial justice, the looming threat of the coronavirus and how players can best utilize their platforms to be socially engaged.
Regarding the league’s decision to move forward with its season despite COVID-19 ravaging our country and the rest of the globe, Williams admitted that he was torn because of the opportunities the NBA creates for its players.
“I recognize the realities of this scenario,” he began. “As an African American, for me, there’s no way I’m in this position without that platform. And the earning potential for a league that’s predominantly African American, for these individuals, I think it’s a massive opportunity. So I’ll be real with you. I’m torn because I understand the significance of the league trying to sustain the revenue that they’ve been able to generate over the past five or 10 years, which has been phenomenal.
Adding, “But I’m also torn about the realities of these guys and their health. They’re leaving their families for three months and obviously some individuals not paying as much attention to the rules as other individuals, and the difficult things that come along with being in a bubble from a mental aspect and also physically.”
As far as the league’s commitment to social justice, Williams believes that increased awareness is important, but he’s more concerned with it being followed up with subsequent action.
“If my family was safe and I have the biggest platform in the world to delineate my message on a day-to-day basis, considering everything we have right now, I utilize that platform,” he said. “I just don’t utilize the platform, I also utilize my connectivity with owners, with other high-level business people or people of influence to raise funds to create lobbyists to help us change the legislation. And I use my platform to tell people legislation I want to change.”
“Kyrie [Irving] and Dwight [Howard] were leading the players’ coalition and the word was out there. I liked the good cop, bad cop angle there. I just wonder what’s happened to it. And I’m still waiting to hear a plan from the league. I think initially that’s what Kyrie, Avery Bradley and Dwight were getting at.”
He then took the time to praise WNBA star Maya Moore for sacrificing the prime of her career to pursue criminal justice reform.
“I really commend her,” he said. “And I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, if you want to do it and do it full-time, put your money where your mouth is.’ To leave your playing career to apply yourself to a cause in perpetuity, pretty much saying, ‘This is who I am now. I am doing this full time.’ That deserves a standing O, man.”
In being a talking head on ESPN’s daily programming, Williams doesn’t always have the opportunity to discuss important matters such as these with the amount of nuance and understanding as they require. As such, he’ll be tackling these and other topics on his new radio show Keyshawn, Jay and Zubin on August 17 as a part of ESPN Radio’s revamped lineup.
“I’m a fan of sports and also barbershop talk,” he said. “That’s the sports environment I was born and raised on. I think there are a lot of really deep issues that we have to talk about right now about pertaining to life.”
“So for me, now having a platform to bring nuance to the table and to speak through difficult and challenging conversations in real-time, to bring on fans to give out their P.O.V., to bring on celebrities and athletes to share their opinions on things and to bring on coaches and people who have an interest in some of these deeper issues and to talk those through. I couldn’t ask for a better platform and a better opportunity than my network to do that, to really try to change the way we have conversations and to stop this world of, ‘The louder I scream at you, that means I’m correct.”
The Duke legend is grateful for the myriad of opportunities that have been afforded to him, and he’s got his eyes on the next generation of athletes and the power they already wield. Especially with top recruits opting to attend HBCUs instead of joining big-name sports programs.
“I really think that athletes these days are more powerful beyond measure,” he said. “And you’re going to start to find that, especially with where the media business landscape is, that the thought of going to traditional schools or doing it the traditional way is somewhat antiquated.”
“You’re even going to see schools revamp how they start doing storytelling. How are they going to build more visibility for their players that they’re recruiting and help them earn more with your name, image and likeness? So if you’re a high school student right now who has thousands of people that are following you online on social media, you should be thinking about what your content strategy is. You should be thinking about how you want to leverage your platform because you have power. You have power.”
As for his final thoughts, he discussed the H.R. 40 bill and how reparations are key to closing the racial wealth gap.
“There’s a town in North Carolina that is starting to do that for their residents,” he said. “When you see a country such as Germany who’s been doing this for the Jewish community for close to 100 years, why is that not applicable here in the United States? That’s the question. I think we need to continue to force people to acknowledge to have this conversation so we can push for legislation like that.”
If these are the types of much-needed conversations that we can look forward to when Keyshawn, Jay and Zubin premieres, then we’ll be in for a treat.
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