Len Elmore ‘Extremely Heartened’ By NBA Players Prioritizing Societal Change

Earlier this month, Brooklyn Nets star point guard Kyrie Irving reportedly said during a Zoom call with 80-plus NBA players that he was opposed to restarting the NBA later this summer in Orlando following the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25.

Rather, Irving said he’d prefer to fight for racial equality during the coming months rather than live in the Orlando bubble. Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard released a statement June 13 indicating that he agreed with Irving’s position.

“Basketball, or entertainment period, isn’t needed at this moment, and will only be a distraction,” Howard’s statement read. “Sure, it might not distract us as players, but we have resources at hand that the majority of our community don’t have. And the smallest distraction for them can start a trickle-down effect that may never stop. … I would love nothing more than to win my very first NBA Championship. But the unity of My People would be an even bigger Championship.”

The NBA is aiming for a July 30 restart and for the playoffs to start Aug. 17. Irving will miss the rest of the season following shoulder surgery. Howard is healthy, and the Lakers are among the favorites to win the title.

Len Elmore played at Maryland from 1971-1974 and in the ABA/NBA from 1974-1984. The former big man is the Terps’ all-time leading rebounder (1,053 total and 12.2 per game). Elmore is currently a senior lecturer in sports management at Columbia University, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and a college hoops analyst for Fox Sports.

Elmore joined Glenn Clark Radio June 16 to discuss the role of sports in creating societal change. This has been edited for clarity and content.

Glenn Clark: We’ve started hearing from specific basketball players who have said, “There’s something more important going on right now, and if we get away from that and talking about that and provide people a distraction by going back and playing basketball, it hurts what it is that we’re fighting for in this moment.” It was a fascinating thought to me. I think that sometimes there’s been a feeling that we as Americans, and specifically white Americans, need to be uncomfortable, and when we’re provided distractions, it allows us to stop caring. What do you make of this issue that faces basketball players and this decision to come back and play versus continuing this fight for justice and equality for the black community?

Len Elmore: I was extremely heartened by that particular position that if you go back to playing sports you create a distraction and the next thing you know, the issues of the day are going to be forgotten, particularly when we have momentum going. At one time I probably dismissed a lot of these guys as, “They’re getting paid and that’s all they care about.” But I was definitely proven wrong in this instance. I’ve been saying all along that sport in the midst of the upheaval that we’ve had and the reminders of the issues that have gone on for decades, if not centuries if you really want to look at the truth of it, that sport [slowed] momentum. I thought if we go back that it’s easy to utilize it as a distraction and also to kind of make it seem as though everything is fine simply because we have the brotherhood of sports.

It really comes down to that conundrum. These guys have families and they certainly want to get paid, but I think they now become authentic activists, the ones who are saying this could be a distraction because they’re going to give up something in order to probably improve the state of humanity. I tip my cap to guys who are thinking about that. Corporations come and go. You can revive these teams later on. We know that most of it is about the money and providing an opportunity for the teams and the leagues to fulfill their contracts and get paid, but it’s bigger than that. You can revive those corporations at another time, but we may never have a chance at making change [like this] without some type of destruction, some type of dismantling of a system that will hurt some folks.

Kyle Ottenheimer: What do you make of the response from folks like Charles Barkley who say that sports provides a larger platform, that there’s no other outlet for which they could impact or institute [change] or get their voice out there?

LE: … We know each other and I have great respect for him, but people who say that don’t [recognize that] as long as we don’t have sport, what is the media going to cover? They’re going to cover what these guys say and do. Sports journalism can’t go away right away, and that’s why they have these voices. That’s why this conversation is in the headlines.

… [The NFL has] now recognized the error in their recognition of what Colin Kaepernick was doing, but I can guarantee they’re still not going to allow demonstrations. They’re not going to allow certain voicing of opinion that is really aligned against policing in America, the micro-aggressions that black people have to suffer every day. They’re not going to necessarily allow that or people are going to speak against it.

And you have to look at ulterior motives. Certain folks aren’t getting paid if sports aren’t being played. I really disagree with that position and I say that the platform is already here and guys can stand with the people. You don’t necessarily have to go out and protest, but there are other ways that you can help, and you don’t have to necessarily play. Let’s solve the problem or begin to solve the problem first before we go to the distractions.

GC: Just to be fair to Charles Barkley, who doesn’t need it but we’re going to do it anyway, here’s the quote. He said, “If they don’t play, they’re going to be out of sight, out of mind for the rest of the year. There won’t be no cameras following them. LeBron [James] is probably the most famous athlete in the United States. He won’t be visible anywhere, so out of sight, out of mind.” … I probably tend to agree with you.

LE: I get it. But don’t tell me LeBron and a bunch of guys are now starting a movement to get people to vote. You’re going to tell me if LeBron … and other guys of note going into various communities looking to get people registered to vote, you think they’re going to be forgotten? Absolutely not.

… What they’re doing, in a sense, is going to endear them. Basketball is not going away. Some of these corporations are going to be resuscitated, particularly in sport because America has already shown we need sports desperately. But will it have to take a hiatus until we get on track to solving the issues that we have. It probably will. But if players are on the right side of solving [problems] and creating momentum, they’re not only not going to be forgotten, they’re going to be more accepted and endeared to the community.

GC: Let me ask this as someone who wants to think of himself as a well-intentioned white person and wants to try to believe that I’m an ally but I accept privilege and I know that I can’t possibly understand everything. At what point do we say we’ve accomplished enough change that we could go back to doing what it is that we were doing before? Is there a measurement by which that could be a comfortable decision to make?

LE: I think the most tangible change is going to be a change in policing nationwide. If you want to drill down to it, that’s the focus of all of this. The police have been used as a tool of subjugation to black people and people of disadvantaged income going all the way back to colonial days. What we have now is people are upset. We have police forces that are more focused on being warriors than being guardians who serve and protect. Municipalities, states and even the federal government have to start changing by changing policy and changing law.

And then you have the idea of systemic racism and the impact that it’s had over these so many decades and centuries. What about more support for black businesses? What about a focus on integrating board rooms? What about so many different things that need to occur to create the kind of diversity and the kind of rainbow of experience and input that can change direction? When we start seeing that, I think that’s the beginning.

… It’s all about improving your racial stamina to be able to talk about these issues without putting up defenses like anger, fear and disagreement – instead, to sit and understand. I’ve said before and I’ve talked to a number of corporations, the more I think about, there are problems in the black community, absolutely. But the concept of racism, that’s not a black problem, that’s a white problem. And the quicker we understand that and the quicker we both work together to make that change, the better I think we’re all going to be in the long run. People may disagree with me. People may vehemently disagree, but nevertheless when you look at the history of America that’s what it is.

KO: With the discussion about sports in the context of all of this, it’s a two-fold discussion about both short-term and long-term, right? From what I gather, it seems like the role of sports, in your opinion, should play in the short term is to take a back seat, to recognize that it is not the priority right now and that there are bigger things to address. But ultimately in the long term, what role can sports take in helping to impact this change? How can sports become part of the solution in the long term here?

LE: Sport can be part of the solution by being that beacon that kind of lights the way. We talk about sport being a microcosm of society. Well, let’s step up to that. How is it the NFL – 75 percent black players – has very few black head coaches? How many team presidents are there of color in the NBA or even in the NFL? It’s just something where now you start taking a role in being the example that you want and lead. Why do we have to have a Rooney Rule? Because sport hasn’t led, particularly the NFL. So let’s start enforcing these ideas and these concepts.

There are so many statements out there, and statements are great. But now it comes down to definitive action. It’s not just the NFL. It’s not just sport in general. We need to see corporate America, which I think has failed people of color for so long even though there are instances where you can say corporate America has helped. But in the long run, the power that it has, it really hasn’t lived up to its promise. I think corporate America can lead as much as anything else. And you can see by the statements that they’ve made, the admissions: We haven’t done enough. We can do more. That, to me, succinctly puts together every corporate statement that’s been made in favor of change.

GC: I think this conversation has surrounded basketball because I think we know the percentage of black athletes in that sport is probably greater than in other sports, but particularly considering the role that white people need to play in this, would you encourage football and baseball players to think about something similar to have conversations about whether or not it’s right to be playing at this moment and distracting from the conversation that’s at hand?

LE: Certainly I would encourage the discussion, and I certainly understand, particularly in the sports like baseball and like football where if you’re not one of the [top] players on that team, you’re not making those long dollars – particularly baseball, hockey to a certain extent. But yes, I would encourage a discussion because out of that dialogue will not only come ideas but hopefully a respect for the feelings of both sides. I’m not the one that’s the arbiter of the decision that they make, they will be. So therefore they will have to come to grips with all of these issues and decide which side they want to be on.

For more from Elmore, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of ESPN

Luke Jackson

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