“Shut Up and Dribble”
By: Donald Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on October 2, 2020
In 2018, Fox TV talk show host and commentator, Laura Ingraham chastised NBA basketball superstar, LeBron James, about dabbling in controversial social justice issues. “Shut up and dribble” Ingraham said to James, without apology or further explanation.
In the week before Labor Day, NBA team owners sent the same message, albeit in more diplomatic language, to the teams and players participating in the NBA playoff games. For one day, several teams – led by the L.A. Clippers and Lakers -- boycotted their games in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
For a brief moment in time, the African-American community nationwide thought that it had a powerful ally on its side in the fight against police violence. Twenty-four hours later, NBA owners had crushed the boycott. They were not going to allow a small group of highly paid players to force them into losing tens of billions of dollars during the playoffs, no matter how worthy their cause might be.
Every year, major league professional sports teams in baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, golf, motor car racing, wrestling, etc., generate hundreds of billions of dollars for their team owners and their leagues. Except for Michael Jordan (owner of the Charlotte Hornets NBA team) and Shahid Kahn (owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team), the principal owners of major league professional sports teams in the U.S. are white and all of them are billionaires who made their fortunes in other industries. No player is a billionaire.
Players have no ownership interests in these sports teams. They are paid big bucks to generate huge revenues for their owners. They are nothing more than employees with high paying jobs. Players build up the economic value of a team and move on when they are too injured or old to play. The owners reap the benefit of the increased equity in each sports enterprise. The balance of power between owners and players ALWAYS rests with the owners.
The ownership group in professional sports is old, ultra-conservative in their politics, Republican-leaning, and has a paternalistic view of players. They acquire, trade, and release players like ranchers do livestock. No player is bigger than the sport he/she plays in. Players come and go; team ownership is a legacy asset. No owner of a major league professional sports franchise has ever been on the frontline of a demonstration to end police violence in the U.S.
Like Laura Ingraham, team owners have no interest in the views of their players on police violence, Donald Trump, systemic racism or other sensitive political and social justice issues that upset white people, who comprise the overwhelming majority of their sports fans, merchandise purchases and sponsors.
Whites attend and/or watch sports events for entertainment value. This is one of the few ways they can relax over drinks, hot dogs, laughter, and cheering. They adore players who can send them into a euphoric state of excitement during games. However, under no circumstances are white sports fans interested in receiving racial sensitivity training from athletes who are paid to dribble balls, dunk balls, run balls, catch balls, hit balls and win championships. This is why Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble”.
TO pacify the boycotting teams and players, the NBA committed to spend a token $300 million over the next 10 years on social justice programs. The amount equates to less than $1 million per team for 10 years. NBA owners spend this amount for a tent on the “greens’ at the Masters Golf Tournament and for parties during the playoffs. This $300 million was a “fig leaf” cover for players who caved in after a 24-hour boycott.
What’s The Larger Message Here?
Sports is just a game. Athletes can dominate play in a game. Police violence is real life drama, and it typically targets blacks and other racial minorities. Ending police violence requires a special set of skills that is very different from dribbling and shooting basketballs. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other notable civil rights activists demonstrated, to lead in the social justice arena, an activist must have BIG BALLS and must be willing to die on his feet rather than live on his knees.
When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, 75% of white Americans disliked him. When Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, 98% of white Americans disliked her. When Mohammed Ali refused the military draft on religious grounds during the height of the Vietnam War, 95% of white Americans disliked him. Activists of color who worry about being disliked by whites effectively neuter themselves.
For black America, your next Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X is not in the NBA. He’s not Tiger Woods. He’s not Michael Jordan. He’s not O.J. Simpson. He’s not Jay-Z or P. Diddie. He’s not one of our mega-church “bishops” or pastors. He or she will have to be raised up by the African-American community in the same way King and Malcolm were.