Americans have a cultural fascination with the idea that sports are a meritocracy, where the only ingredients for success are physical prowess and a burning will to win. This mythology is strong within basketball culture, as legends like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and others have become revered for their aggression, unwavering ambition, and exceptional work ethic.
What this narrative erases, however, is that athletes are people who face many of the same barriers as the rest of us — both physical and social. Athletes of color, for example, face racist people and structures, as do other people of color — a fact that is not discussed often enough at both amateur and professional levels within the world of sports.
Take Hall of Fame point guard Oscar Robertson. We remember him primarily as the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season in 1962 — and only one of two NBA players to have ever averaged a triple-double at all, the other being Russell Westbrook. What we discuss less, however, is the ways Robertson had to overcome racism at every step of his playing career, from high school to the NBA, and how such incidents profoundly shaped his perspective on sports and life.
To put it simply, race mattered in Robertson’s career, as it has in the careers of so many other basketball players of color. But we often erase that reality because it complicates the narrative we want to build about Robertson; we want him to be someone who pushed the sport forward, who had that killer instinct and determination to win. While he undoubtedly pushed the sport forward, we don’t want to acknowledge that he did so despite barriers intentionally put in his path by people who wanted to hold him back because of the color of his skin.
Similarly, Hall-of-Famer and retired Los Angeles Lakers point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. is remembered most for his dazzling smile, flashy passes, and unlikely friendship with white frenemy Larry Bird. We don’t talk about the racialized backlash he received after announcing to the world that he was HIV positive — and his friendship with Bird is often reduced to a simple story of how basketball pushes athletes to overcome differences, including racial ones.
It would be nice to think that all of this is firmly in the past and that basketball has come a long way. And yet, it was during a game just last month when point guard Russell Westbrook was mocked with racial slurs by a fan watching the Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Utah Jazz, an experience Robertson had to deal with countless times throughout his career.
That incident was part of what moved Utah Jazz wing Kyle Korver, one of the preeminent three-point shooters in NBA history, to publish a piece called “Privileged” in The Players’ Tribune, an online publication launched in 2014 by MLB Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter.
The Tribune’s mission is, in part, to help bridge the gap between famous athletes and fans, to humanize the players we idolize and mythologize in so many ways. Part of that work is acknowledging that athletes — and their performance — are impacted on a daily basis by so much more than their physical responsibilities.
At its core, Korver’s piece — as implied by the headline — focuses on what it means to be a white athlete in a predominantly Black league. He acknowledges that his teammates of color have a remarkably different experience than he does, both on and off the court, and implores other white people to both identify racist incidents when they occur and to sit back and follow the lead of people of color in deciding how to address them.
In the piece, Korver makes several key points and commitments. One of the most important is his declaration that any fan who wears his jersey should know where he stands on issues of race, privilege, and police brutality.
That connection is important in a sports world that generates billions of dollars of revenue annually and is increasingly dictated by the bottom line. It also acknowledges that many outspoken athletes of color have already had their jerseys politicized, whether by choice or not.
For the most part, however, the rest of the piece remains somewhat surface-level. Korver’s main message is that white people need to sit back and listen — which is certainly true, but those moments of listening must also be followed by action. He opens the piece by writing about when his teammate, Thabo Sefolosha, was racially profiled by the NYPD in an incident that ended with officers breaking Sefolosha’s leg. That was a powerful moment in Korver’s journey to confront his racial privilege and a perfect example of when more than listening — perhaps a public condemnation of the NYPD’s actions — could have been helpful.
Similarly, when Westbrook was taunted with racial slurs last month, it was Westbrook who was left to confront the fan himself. That’s another moment when a white player — one of Westbrook’s teammates or somebody on the opposing squad — could have helped address a racist incident head- on, instead of leaving Westbrook to fend for himself and be criticized for it in the media. In actuality, the ability to defend a teammate should not be dictated by race. Westbrook’s situation warranted support from anyone, but white players should not believe they are incapable of intervening when a fellow teammate is being brutalized by a spectator, simply due to their inability to understand their counterpart’s experiences as a person of color.
Still, there’s a huge conversation to be had about race and the role of white athletes in the NBA and in basketball more broadly, and Korver’s piece is an important starting point. The conversation needs to continue — and not just on ESPN or in the context of professional hoops. This is a piece that coaches need to bring into high school locker rooms. They need to talk about it with young athletes as early as middle school.
I think back to my own high school team; an environment where we all idolized Portland Trail Blazers heroes like Brandon Roy and Damian Lillard — and where a few of my white teammates felt comfortable using the n-word in the locker room until the issue was brought to a dean.
I don’t know whether Korver’s piece would have had an impact on those teammates or not. I do know that when white high school athletes idolize Black athletes and still use the n-word in their own athletic spaces, there is a racist, exploitative tension that needs to be identified, drawn out, and addressed.
That tension has a long history in basketball, dating back to before Robertson’s playing days. White athletes and fans should have called it out a long time ago, but we ignored it in favor of maintaining our cultural mythology of sports as an egalitarian meeting ground somehow unsoiled by the outside world’s prejudices.
Kyle Korver is opening this conversation, but there is much more that needs to be explored. We need to take advantage of this opportunity.