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Volume 23 No. 17
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Action, not words

With social protests echoing across the country, the sports world faces a new critical ultimatum: Put up.
Crowds have rallied in New York and across the country to demand social justice and an end to racial discrimination.
Photo: getty images
Crowds have rallied in New York and across the country to demand social justice and an end to racial discrimination.
Photo: getty images
Crowds have rallied in New York and across the country to demand social justice and an end to racial discrimination.
Photo: getty images

As protests spread across U.S. cities, Ethan Casson, the CEO of the NBA team at the epicenter of the discord, weighed the role his franchise could play.

 

Leagues, teams and brands issued statements last week, offering condolences to the family of George Floyd, the man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and echoing the need to acknowledge and confront systemic racism. Properties across sports — including all 30 NBA teams and 12 WNBA teams — participated in #BlackoutTuesday, a 24-hour suspension of social media posts meant to encourage taking time to listen and learn.

To Minnesota Timberwolves executives, including Casson, who saw franchise player Karl-Anthony Towns appear masked at a state-house rally last week less than a month after losing his mother to COVID-19, a statement of support did not seem enough.

Athletes long have weighed in on social issues, especially those connected to race. Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jim Brown and scores of others did so decades ago, paving the way for stands taken by players more recently. But, while sometimes supportive of their activism, the teams that employ them generally have remained agnostic on issues that could be seen as controversial.

This time, the message from those who were skeptical of their sudden willingness to weigh in on a matter of social import was clear: Put up, or shut up.

“Issues will happen around the world, and we have decisions to make on whether we are a statement-issued organization, a take action type of organization, or somewhere in the middle,” said Casson, the CEO of the Timberwolves and Lynx. “As leaders of these organizations and these leagues, you’ve got to decide how deep you go in that discussion or in that change.

“This one doesn’t seem gray at all to us.”

On Wednesday morning, the Timberwolves announced a multiyear commitment to work with a local foundation to “translate community anger into actions.” The agreement calls for the organization to not only contribute to a Fund for Safe Communities launched in 2018 by the 105-year-old Minneapolis Foundation, but also for Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders and Lynx coach and GM Cheryl Reeve to lead advisory committees with goals of preventing further violence, addressing systemic inequities, reforming the criminal justice system, and healing affected communities.

The Timberwolves were among a handful of teams and properties across U.S. sports that backed their words with action last week.

In Baltimore, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti pledged $1 million to support social justice reform, with distribution to be determined by a mix of former and current players. In St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Rays committed to spend $100,000 a year to support organizations that “work to fight against systemic racism.”

The National Basketball Coaches Association formed a racial injustice and reform committee, including Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, working to create change with local community leaders and law enforcement. Other NBA teams announced similar plans. 

NBA players gather with community leaders at Minneapolis City Hall following the local death of George Floyd. The Timberwolves plan to be leaders in taking meaningful action in finding a solution.
Photo: Minnesota Timberwolves
NBA players gather with community leaders at Minneapolis City Hall following the local death of George Floyd. The Timberwolves plan to be leaders in taking meaningful action in finding a solution.
Photo: Minnesota Timberwolves
NBA players gather with community leaders at Minneapolis City Hall following the local death of George Floyd. The Timberwolves plan to be leaders in taking meaningful action in finding a solution.
Photo: Minnesota Timberwolves

Within Olympic sports, the USOPC was scheduled to convene a virtual town hall discussion for athletes, facilitated by athletes. In an email to athletes and NGBs, USOPC CEO Sara Hirshland wrote: “This discussion cannot resolve these issues, but it is essential to progress. We can see that apathy and indifference are not solutions.”

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren created the Big Ten Conference Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition and while making a $100,000 donation along with his wife, Greta, to the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights from the Warren Family Foundation. 

NBA teams planned similar meetings. The Timberwolves hosted a session led by Kim Miller, vice president of leadership and education programs at the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.

“As an organization we are going to stand up,” Casson said. “We are going to weigh in. We are going to listen. We are going to maybe use our platform not just through our players, who already are using their platforms. We … are going to do our part — and not in a way in which is solely about healing. Not in a way that suggests that this too will come and go, and we’ll think about it maybe on an upcoming anniversary and the anniversary after that.

 “But this systemic issue that our communities have been dealing with — and frankly not dealing with with enough transparency and honesty — we’re going to integrate into the DNA of our organization. We take a great deal of pride in being an inclusive organization. But we haven’t been, I think, assertive enough. We haven’t been agents of change like I know we can be.”

M. Quentin Williams founded the nonprofit Dedication to Community in 2012 in part to improve relationships between communities of color and law enforcement. A lawyer who previously served as an FBI agent and federal prosecutor before working for the NFL and as president of an NBA D-League franchise, Williams said he suspected that the many statements that flowed from teams, leagues and other organizations would be met with skepticism.

“Without action, we will not have change, and without change we will have a deeper problem,” Williams said. “Right now, society is not going to permit us to move forward without an action plan. This is the tipping point. This is an inflection point. This is pivotal. Whatever you want to call it. This is important.”

Casson acknowledges that, as a white male executive, he “can not possibly imagine or understand” what it is like to be on the receiving end of racial imbalance. But he said he no longer accepts that it should keep him from influencing reform through action.

“Frankly, I think sports standing up for social justice is part of the NBA and WNBA’s DNA,” Casson said. “But we’ve got to use our voices differently this time. We’ve got to be agents of change.” 

Staff writers Chris Smith and David Bourne contributed to this report.