Adam Brown
14 min readSep 16, 2020

In 2019, David Hollander taught a class at N.Y.U. called “How Basketball Can Save the World.” According to Hollander, basketball can be used as a framework to study real-world problems.

I agree with him that basketball is the world’s most influential sport even though soccer is the world’s most popular. Basketball is the most vocal sport supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and the catalyst for a recent political strike never before seen in sports.

This strike got me thinking about change. Societal change is about the exchange of power. I have been thinking about power — what the word means, who has it, and how we use it. Basketball is a useful lens to look at power.

What Is Power

We refer to the power within ourselves, as well as a power greater than ourselves. I have heard power can be taken, but not given (I have also heard the opposite). James Baldwin said, “The only thing white people have that Black people need, or should want, is power — and no one holds power forever.”

Power has a broad definition, but essentially it is about dependency and the control of resources.

Power results from someone’s ability to make you feel important, as well as their ability to make you feel irrelevant. If you act like you have less to lose you can put yourself in a more powerful position.

Power is not just a vertical axis, and it is not simply a matter of authority. Power can come from the bottom up, and it can take authority away from people in power. Power can alternate.

Every relationship has a power dimension. Relationships come with expectations, and expectations come with a degree of dependency. Dependency confers power to the people on whom you depend. Power becomes neutralized when it becomes benevolent, which means it will become “power to” rather than “power over.”

Power Over vs. Power To

Power is typically understood as power over. This type of power is a relationship in which one person is able to cause the behavior of someone else. In this way, power exists in a social context. Simply, power is the ability to make other people do what you want.

Power over is built on a belief that power is a finite resource, and some people have power and others do not. Talking about power over we are referring to the ability of a person to impose constraints on someone else. Power over is measured by the amount of power someone has over others, and the number of people who are subject to that power. Power over carries a negative connotation because it implies a person is using someone else as a means to an end.

Power to refers to what we have the power to do, as opposed to whom we have power over. Power to can be separated into hypothetical power (what we have the potential to do), and actual power (what we realistically can do).

Power over is associated with conflict and is used as a synonym for domination. Power to is seen as magnanimous and can function as a synonym for empowerment. Power over is referred to as “social power” because it involves a relationship between multiple people. Power to is referred to as “outcome power,” because it can bring about change. Yet, it is hard to think of an example of power that does not have a social context. This context is a cycle of harmony, disharmony, and repair.

Power over is not necessarily intentional, since it can be used by people who are unaware of their power. Moreover, having power over someone is not always an example of domination. Some cases of power over can be beneficial, such as when a coach exercises power over players for their benefit.

The NBA Strike

A few weeks ago, the Bucks’ refused to take part in Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic. This led to a wave of strikes from the WNBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL and individual players like Naomi Osaka.

What the Bucks and other teams did was misrepresented as a boycott when it was actually a labor strike for social justice. This places it in the context of labor. A widespread political strike has never happened before across the world of sports.

These strikes were a protest against systemic racism and police brutality. They were a response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, and an expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Being that the league functions as a safe space for black men, it makes sense the NBA is where strikes began. The Bucks were the first team to strike in part because Sterling Brown has an ongoing lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department. While leaving a Walgreens in 2018 an officer stepped on his neck and tased him. Read his account of the incident here: Your Money Can’t Silence Me

Sterling Brown’s lawsuit reminds us that, while not in uniform, players are subject to the same bigotry non-sports stars are. Harry Belafonte said that no matter how much material power you might have, if you’re Black in America then you’re Black in America.

Before the shooting of Jacob Blake, players supported the BLM movement by kneeling during the national anthem, wearing jerseys bearing social justice messages, and painting Black Lives Matter on the court. After the shooting, it became clear to players what they were doing was not enough. Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore, who play for the WNBA, had already opted out of their seasons to work toward social justice causes.

The Bucks were clear about demanding justice for Jacob Blake, as well as asking for police accountability. They called for their state legislature to take up meaningful police reform. They were unambiguous about what they wanted.

Players worried the entertainment factor of sports diverted public attention away from the movement. Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, countered:

“Is anyone going to be sticking a mic in your face if you go back to fill-in-the-blank town and don’t play? Would they even have a mic in your face right now if you weren’t here, in the bubble, and you were home? Don’t ignore the power of your goddamn platform. The world is watching this bubble.”

Michele Roberts and the players know that power is about influence, but it is not always clear how to use influence once you have it.

The History of the National Basketball Players Association

In his stand up special Never Scared, Chris Rock uses basketball to highlight the racial wealth gap in America:

“There are no wealthy black or brown people in America. We got some rich ones — we don’t got no fucking wealth. What’s the difference? Here’s the difference — Shaq is rich, the white man that signs his check is wealthy.” — Chris Rock

The highest paid player in the NBA is Steph Curry. He has a five year contract worth $40 million a year. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is a fraction of Steve Ballmer’s net worth ($50 billion dollars). Ballmer is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and the NBA’s wealthiest owner. He is a former Microsoft CEO, and the world’s 16th richest person.

Today, player’s average a salary of $7 million — more than any other sports league. NBA players have become the world’s highest-paid union workers, but they still do not have anywhere near as much money as NBA team owners. Yet, they are able to have power through their labor union.

Prior to the creation of the NBA, players used two rival leagues to leverage individual demands. In 1949, the leagues merged to form the NBA, which left players virtually powerless. The players had no pensions, no healthcare, and an average salary of $8,000.

The Player’s Association was founded in 1955, but it wasn’t recognized by owners until 1964 when players threatened to strike the first televised All-Star Game. Salaries started to increase after the union negotiated a revenue share for members. Theoretically, players, coaches, and owners are all in a partnership due to revenue sharing. However, not everyone is on the same side when it comes to social justice.

Players made gains for decades without having to go on strike, but the greatest weapon of any labor union is its ability to strike. The first of four work stoppages in the NBA occurred in 1995, but these were the result of lockouts caused by owners.

The first black player entered the league in 1950, and the NBA is now 75 percent black. The union has funded black colleges, supported voter registration initiatives, and advocated for criminal justice reform. The NBA is a place where black lives are celebrated.

The NBA is considered to be the second most popular sport in America, but by some measures is more popular than the NFL. The NFL has a similar percentage of black players, but does not have the same influence when it comes to social issues. Basketball has much more appeal outside of the United States, and it’s popularity is growing at a faster rate.

In recent decades, the NBA has been more progressive compared to the NFL. The league certainly co-opted the Black Lives Matter movement more quickly than the NFL. Protests in the league have shown just how much influence players have on the league and the culture as a whole.

Power Revisited

Any attribution of power is both a power over and a power to. Power to has a relationship with resistance. It is the power of marginalized groups to act. It is the power to make a difference.

Protesters are resisting overreaches of police power. The police have power over society at large, but if nobody complies with the police then their power is greatly diminished. At the same time, players are punished for exercising their power to protest. The BLM movement spilled into the mainstream when Colin Kaepernick protested during the national anthem. To this day, he does not have a job as a quarterback. Police and protesters exist in the same social context.

Acts of resistance are cases of power over because they pose constraints on someone else’s power. They are also cases of power to because they involve asserting one’s self in the face of domination.

A person’s abilities constitute a basis for power to, but are not power to themselves. Two people equipped with an identical set of abilities, but given different amounts of money are not equally powerful.

Amira Davis, who hosts the podcast Burn It All Down, about the history of Black activism in sports, is quick to point out that the WNBA has been frequently left out of the conversation. WNBA players, who are mostly black women, do not get paid as much as their male counterparts, and don’t have the same kind of media exposure.

A lot of what we’re talking about has to do with identity. Identities and relationships are incredibly complex. Identities are not something inherent to us, but are things we relate to. What social justice activists are really resisting is what bell hooks refers to as “dominator culture.” Dominator culture tends to diminish the complexity of situations. Power over and power to can easily overlap. Dominator culture oppresses everyone — even those in power.

The Police and White Supremacy

In August, the Brennan Center released a report connecting police and white supremacist groups. It concluded that none of the reforms made in the wake of protests have addressed the issue of white supremacy. Any discussion of race and reform is a discussion of white supremacy.

The police are an extension of the state. The state claims “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” The police started out as slave patrols, and slavery was the legal manifestation of white supremacy.

The safest communities are not the ones with the most police, but the ones with the most resources. Those communities are largely white and perpetuate the status quo with the money and influence they wield.

The catalyst for white supremacy in the United States is considered Bacon’s Rebellion, which happened in 1676. The trans-Atlantic slave trade originated 150 years earlier when the Pope gave West Africa to Portugal, but slaves that arrived in the Thirteen Colonies became indentured servants. If they arrived elsewhere in the Americas, they became slaves. There were exceptions, such as in 1619 when around 20 Africans were sold in Point Comfort, Virginia.

The first “official” slave in the English colonies is considered John Punch. He was sentenced to slavery for trying to escape indentured servitude in 1640. Two white men who fled with him received a lighter sentence of extended indentured servitude. This is considered to be one of the first legal distinctions between Europeans and Africans in America.

Sidenote: it is a strong possibility that Barack Obama is an eleventh-great-grandson of John Punch.

In 1655, John Casor became the first African in the Thirteen Colonies to be declared a slave for life as a result of a civil suit. His case was against Anthony Johnson, who was one of the first black property owners in the colonies.

In 1662, a Virginia law stated that the legal status of the child followed that of the mother, which further accelerated power imbalances. Whites could accumulate wealth, while racial and class hierarchies were being formalized.

Yet, it was only after Bacon’s Rebellion — a rebellion consisting of white and black indentured servants and enslaved Africans — that lawmakers began to regularly make legal distinctions between “white” and “black.” Wealthy planters were shaken by the fact that a rebel militia united white servants and black slaves, and hoped to separate the two groups — making it less likely they would unite again. In other words, wealthy white elites created the concept of race in America to concentrate power in their hands.

Race has real consequences in our country, but I think we should remember that race is an illusion and a distraction. The racial reality we live in today did not always exist. The police and the prison industrial complex maintain power for the elite. It is their job to make sure things stay the same. It is our job to make sure things change. Warren Buffet once said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

In his standup special, Equanimity, Dave Chappelle says, “I know rich white people call poor white people trash, and the only reason I know that is because I made so much money last year, the rich whites told me they say it at a cocktail party.” He then says that, despite the fact that he’s black, Donald Trump cares more about him than poor white people.

Despite NBA franchise owners supporting players, and donating $300 million to invest in the black community, they donate an outsized amount to Trump and the Republican party. The most likely explanation for this is not racial, but economic. Wealthy people are going to donate to the political party that resists change, and gives them the biggest tax cuts.

Dan Devos, owner of the Orlando Magic, donated $200,000 to a Trump super PAC directly after George Floyd’s death.

Sidenote: Betsy DeVos is part of the same family that owns the Orlando Magic, and her brother founded Blackwater.

The owner of the Atlanta Dream is Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican who vehemently condemns the Black Lives Matter movement. The WNBA has responded to her lack of support by refusing to acknowledge her altogether.

Thankfully, the “elite” are not more monolithic than any other group. Steve Ballmer donates more money than any other team owner, and that money goes to Democrats. Yet, absent Ballmer and his donations, the vast majority of NBA owners donate to Republicans.

We should not expect the wealthy to betray their own interests, but at some point only looking out for yourself becomes counter productive. The root of selfishness is seeing yourself as separate from everyone and everything. One purpose of protest is to get those uninterested in change to see how they are affected by injustice. It is up to those with power to help those who lack power.

Kevin Beasley’s Acoustic Panels

At the online viewing room of the Casey Kaplan Gallery you can see Kevin Beasley’s “Acoustic Panels.” Each work in the show features player jerseys that were hardened with resin and placed over foam panels. The uniforms of Derrick Rose, James Harden, Draymond Green and Steph Curry are on display.

Beasley’s work is symbolic. It exemplifies how the way we view art says more about us than the artist. The underlying message has to do with, “the repetition of how we view Black bodies,” and the relationship between sports and protest. Sports have become the most visible theater of protest as media coverage about protests in city streets has diminished. Unfortunately, there is entirely too much focus on damage done by a small number of protesters.

Protest has become seasonal in the way sports have seasons. Each protest cycle results from the same brutality repeating over and over again. Beasley notes that the conversations surrounding the movement have not changed. He says, “Now people are actually responding in ways that these kinds of movements have wanted for a long time. But it’s still the same kind of circumstances. There are still the same injustices that led to this.”

We are in another cycle of protests resulting from the murders of Steven Taylor and Daniel Prude, and we have new protests spurred on by the lack of accountability in Louisville. By bringing awareness to the cycle, Beasley hopes he can change your understanding of it, which might lead to a way of breaking it.

Power With

In the early 90’s, Michael Jordan steered clear of politics and advocacy because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Since then, he has pledged $100 million to the black community, and has supported Democratic candidates running for office. That being said, Michael Jordan is still the only black owner of an NBA team.

We live in a world where companies and organizations can be political, and a company’s brand is its culture. In so far as black culture is monolithic, the NBA represents black culture in a way few other organizations do. For team owners to perpetuate harmful policies by donating to an antagonistic political party is a real issue.

Every institution has power struggles. When we ask who is more powerful we are asking who is more dependent on the other. At first, players were dependent on the organization. Yet, through collective bargaining, players have acquired enough power that the NBA is forced to listen to them. Ownership is dependent on everyone else in an organization. If people underperform, underproduce, undermine, or go on strike they exercise power. It seems the more power a person has the more circumscribed their power becomes — this is true for everyone.

Power is about influence, which comes from control over resources. A CEO is powerful because they have control over resources that lots of people want. A CEO can take power back by firing people and hiring others. You need numbers to resist that kind of power.

Being powerful is more about giving support than getting support. Robert Greenleaf talks about servant leadership, which flips the concept of organizational power on its head by putting the boss at the bottom serving the rest of the company. The CEO’s job is to help people rather than the other way around.

Power with is shared power. “It is built on respect, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment and collaborative decision making.” It grows out of collaboration and relationships. Power with is a synonym for coalition building. Disparate groups forge connections, which lead to collective action.

NBA players were not alone in extracting demands. Coaches, owners and management were supportive even though owners’ money was in jeopardy. Steve Ballmer advocated for “real police accountability.” Doc Rivers highlighted the grace black people have carried themselves with despite our country repeatedly foregoing real change. The strike, which lasted less than a week, ended when the league agreed to promote civic engagement by establishing polling locations in NBA arenas. I think it became clear to owners that co-opting the movement was financially advantageous, and a good public relations move.

Every form of protest is criticized and constrained. The messages on the back of players’ jerseys are pre-approved by the organization. At the first NFL game of the season, players were met with boos after locking arms with each other. When basic messages about unity are met with resistance I can see why those looking for change feel like they have to raise the stakes. A protest is considered peaceful only in comparison to a more militant one. Still, much progress has been made in the fight for social justice since Colin Kaepernick began protesting four years ago.

In 1996, NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, did a one man protest during the national anthem. He was suspended by the league. Today, a team going on strike is seen as the start of a conversation, and no one is fined or suspended.

Some players are dubious of owners’ commitment to change, and have threatened to stop playing if promises aren’t delivered. Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics said, “I think promises are made year after year. We’ve heard a lot of these terms and words before.” Yet, the players have increased their platform and can always go on strike again.

Further Reading:

As NBA Ratings Decline, Poll Shows 34% Watched Less Sports Over Social Justice Messages —Matthew Impelli

A Brooklyn Artist Wants Sports Fans to Wear Their Names — Ben Osborne