20 shots: How the Sacramento Kings created unity amidst controversy, tragedy

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This year, the Sacramento Kings’ season will not be defined by their lowly record, but by their role as the most important team at the intersection of sports and social activism.

Three weeks ago, 20 shots were fired by two police officers in the Sacramento Police Department, resulting in the murder of Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man, spurring protests and anger over the violent oppression of Black men in America.

On March 22, protesters marched from Sacramento City Hall and shut down Interstate 5  before ultimately forming a human chain around Golden 1 Center. Only a few hundred fans were allowed to attend the game between the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks before police stopped allowing fans into the game.

The Kings’ response? Surprisingly — but more importantly, necessarily — egalitarian.

Inconvenienced fans were given refunds. That night, Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé met directly with protest organizer Berry Accius and delivered an impassioned speech acknowledging the team’s role as community leaders after the game.

Three days later, when the Kings hosted the Boston Celtics, both teams warmed up wearing T-shirts with “#StephonClark” on the back and “Accountability. We are one.” on the front.  Both teams participated in a PSA about police brutality as well.

The NBA’s action starkly contrasts to that of the NFL and its response to the national anthem kneeling controversy in which players protesting the same injustices were met with racism, anti-patriotic rhetoric and even bigotry from the president.

This leads us to ask a seemingly central and simplistic but intricate question: In the two professional leagues predominantly composed of Black men, why is the intersection of activism within each sport so violently contrasted?

I think it starts at the top, trickles down to its superstars and seeps into the political beliefs of fans.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and executives spent the better part of the last decade aligning the league with patriotism and those who tout it, giving conservative, white fans a sense of ownership to the league’s rugged, American presence and legacy.

When Colin Kaepernick inserted Black activism within the white centralism and exposed the country’s unbalanced racial dichotomy, Goodell found himself in a crisis for which he wasn’t prepared.

While Kaepernick remained sidelined and hundreds of players stood up to injustice by taking a knee, racists and bigots gained power and voice along with Trump’s incessant attacks.

Goodell remained hopeless in the middle: He didn’t have the social justification to silence the players, but he also didn’t have the leadership and backbone to directly rebuke the widespread bigotry by instituting administrative safeguards validating the players’ rights.

Addressing racial injustice became an individual team event rather than a unified league’s challenge. While some teams such as the Seattle Seahawks established community organizations, other teams such as the Dallas Cowboys threatened using benching to suppress demonstrations.

On the other hand, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has kept a more progressive tone.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, the Miami Heat wore hoodies and wrote messages such as “We want justice” in honor of Martin on their shoes.

Two years later, after Eric Garner was killed in 2014, many players donned “I Can’t Breathe” shirts.  When Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were both killed in Louisiana in 2016, players participated in an onstage PSA at the ESPYs.

It is important that Silver keeps this tone and encourages player participation in addressing racial injustice outside the court, but it might be easy to fall into a trap here. The NBA’s rhetoric is only valuable with an action plan of change, and there is a difference between progressive yet administrative rhetoric and the disruption seen in Sacramento.

Regardless, the NBA and Kings must remember that Clark was murdered, and more definitive, systematic change that goes beyond warm-up shirts is required.

Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]