How the NBA and WNBA won summer 2020 from a PR perspective
By Eddie Brown
What sports league “won” this eventful summer? The answer without a doubt is the NBA and WNBA for the way that the organization as a whole handled a summer we will never forget. The way that both leagues handled the pandemic and the social injustice that plagued our society shows why it has earned the title of most progressive leagues in sports. This pristine image has been developing over the last couple of years but in a time of fear and uncertainty, the NBA and WNBA solidified the designation.
The NBA opened the country’s eyes to how serious the coronavirus was. Utah Jazz star center Rudy Gobert’s positive test on Wednesday, March 11 2020 caused the league to shut down the season indefinitely and showed the world that a young, healthy, world-class athlete could fall victim to the virus. The NBA’s response to Gobert’s test, who was quoted as feeling “strong, ready to play” helped to shape public perception at a time when there was little acknowledgment of asymptomatic carriers of the virus. There was a popular belief that COVID was only life-threatening for elders and basically the flu for young people. An entire sport wouldn’t shut down operations for a player with the flu so the NBA really helped people understand the seriousness of it. I remember the basketball shutdown seemed to start a domino effect where the rest of the world quickly shut down in the aftermath, Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson tested positive the same night. The NHL also followed the NBA’s lead by suspending their season the following morning.
As everyone sat in quarantine, American sports leagues tried to determine the quickest way to resume play. The NBA and WNBA, on the other hand, sat down to best determine the safest way to resume play. They teamed up with AdventHealth to produce a 113-page outline of the best protocols to implement for the players and staff. As a result of this partnership, both leagues would return to play in an isolated “bubble” located in Florida. The world marveled at the comprehensive testing plan for the NBA bubble that resulted in zero cases for the entire campus which was admirable in July when many states continued to struggle mightily with stopping COVID’s spread. This is also commendable when considering how their counterparts like the MLB and NFL have had numerous positive cases during their restarts.
With the strict protocols, the NBA set an example of how to control the spread of the virus and proved that sports could resume amidst a pandemic. Initially, the league did catch some backlash for testing players while symptomatic citizens struggled to get tested in the outside world. The NBA, unlike its counterparts, created a space where players who didn’t feel comfortable with the risk involved in returning to play could opt out without a punishment, unlike the NFL. Before returning to play, the NBA held a league-wide zoom call with its players to players' concerns about distracting from the movement or COVID risk. The NBA Players Association also came together to discuss how to make an impact while in the bubble. Several players across both leagues decided to sit out and focus on social justice issues, the NBA supported those who made that decision. Brooklyn Nets superstar guard Kyrie Irving donated $1.5 to WNBA players to supplement the salaries of those who decided to sit out, recognizing that the women who make less money than their male counterparts have far more to lose by sitting out for social justice causes.
Above all else, the basketball world truly showed its leadership with the way the league supported the Black Lives Matter movement during a summer filled with police brutality. The women of the WNBA have always been at the forefront of social justice issues, ready to use their platform to amplify voices or protest to invoke change when necessary. WNBA superstar Maya Moore continues to give up prime years of her career to help free a man who was wrongfully convicted -- who is now free and married to Moore as of last week. The WNBA dedicated their entire restart to Breonna Taylor and racial injustice with their Say Her Name campaign which guard Layisha Clarendon explained on opening night “We are also dedicating this season to Say Her Name campaign, a campaign committed to saying the names and fighting for justice for Black women, Black women who are so often forgotten in this fight for justice, who do not have people marching in the streets for them. We will say her name.” Atlanta Dream owner and U.S. Sen. of Georgia Kelly Loeffler made insensitive comments about how BLM “didn’t have a place” in the WNBA which caused her players to wear warm-up donning the name of a political opponent in protest.
Washington Mystics players boycotted a game after the Jacob Blake shooting -- wearing shirts with seven bullet wounds on the back, the number of times Blake was shot by Kenosha police on the court in protest. Milwaukee Bucks also boycotted their playoff game after the Blake shooting in protest, refusing to leave their locker room. I commend the NBA and WNBA because they decided to postpone playoff games until the weekend to hear players out, even after all the commotion. As a result of the boycott, the league and players agree on using several arenas and facilities as voting locations for the 2020 general election.
The NBA and WNBA do get positive publicity as collateral from its players doing the legwork of being social activists. The important distinction to make is how both leagues fully support the causes that matter to the players by amplifying players’ voices and using resources to act as an ally. This is important in a time where the NFL, the top competitor, has shown the complete opposite approach in these situations. Throughout the summer, the NBA and WNBA proved worthy of its image as a progressive, forward-thinking organization, specifically on social justice issues.