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Has the sports world forgotten about the impact of George Floyd’s death?

One year later, a look at NBA arenas will help answer that question

How will the NBA and other sports leagues acknowledge the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer?

How the sports world commemorates Floyd — or whether it remembers him at all on Tuesday — will go a long way in telling us how far we have come as a nation.

Have we learned anything? Do Black lives — or lives other than white and wealthy ones — really matter?

Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The recorded video of his final moments, a police officer kneeling on his neck, sparked protest in the United States and around the world. As it was in the 1950s and ’60s, our nation’s hypocrisy — preaching democracy abroad while practicing oppression at home — was put on blast.

With a preponderance of high-profile Black athletes adding their voices to the outrage, sports leagues were forced to react. The leagues took dramatic measures, but now, a year later, were the measures anything more than pantomime?

When the NBA and WNBA resumed their respective seasons last fall, they constructed sanctuaries to protect against the ravages of COVID-19. With anger and rage swirling, these “bubbles” became a veritable Harambee House for athletes, most of whom were Black. Indeed, throughout corporate America, in the wake of police shootings, capped by the public execution of Floyd, Black Lives Matter initiatives emerged like pop-up stores.

The NBA and WNBA bubbles became safe havens where athletes demonstrated anger over the historic mistreatment of African Americans in all facets of life inside the United States. Black Lives Matter slogans were painted on courts and players were allowed — indeed encouraged — to express their outrage with slogans on T-shirts, shorts and jerseys. Though when the Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler decided to have no name on his jersey to underline his invisibility as a Black man in America, the NBA said he’d gone too far and ordered him to use his given name.

Players knelt during the national anthem. In some cases, they were joined by officials and team executives.

On TV, Black Lives Matter commercials were everywhere. Everything Black was a go.

Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rhapsodized about the importance of Black lives, especially in the NFL. There was little pushback because there were no fans inside the arenas to hiss and boo.

Now there are fans in the stands and we see a change. We seem to have gotten back to normal. Little to no Black Lives Matter signage is seen around arenas, certainly not on the court.

Now there are fans in the stands and we see a change. We seem to have gotten back to normal. Little to no Black Lives Matter signage is seen around arenas, and certainly not on the court.

Players for the most part are standing during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s as though the league has given in to the gravitational pull of racism and white supremacy where racism is only acknowledged when it is blasted in our faces, as it was with Floyd.

Our reaction follows a pattern: Marches. Prayer vigils. Singing. Concessions. Some Black folks get promotions, the rest get Juneteenth off.

But we never really get to the core.  

Mark Cuban tried.

Last November Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, made a move that reflected — rather, responded to — the deepening divide in the United States. Cuban ordered his staff to stop playing the national anthem before Mavericks games. He recognized that fans — U.S. citizens — look at the flag and hear the national anthem through myriad prisms. For some, the song and the flag represent patriotism. For many others, the flag and song represent oppression and hypocrisy. So why play it?

Cubans’ point was undergirded on Jan. 6 when Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building. What struck me at the time was the number of traditional American flags standing next to Confederate flags and white nationalist symbols.

The American flag, which we’re asked to stand and salute while the national anthem is being sung, does not represent one ideal.

Cuban said in a statement: “We respect and always have respected the passion people have for the anthem and our country, but we also loudly hear the voices of those who feel that the anthem does not represent them. We feel that their voices need to be respected and heard, because they have not been.”

He added: “Our hope is that going forward people will take the same passion they have for this issue and apply the same amount of energy to listen to those who feel differently from them. Then we can move forward and have courageous conversations that move this country forward and find what unites us.”

The so-called enlightened NBA told Cuban to get with the program and resume playing the national anthem — especially now that customers were entering the building and politicians had begun to weigh in on Cuban’s decision to stop playing the song.

As I looked around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on May 22 and at 15,000 screaming fans at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, a number of questions emerged: How many of these fans participated in the Capitol riots on Jan. 6? How many wished they had? How many sympathized with the rioters? How many, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe that the election was stolen? How many sympathize with the officer who murdered Floyd?

Social media allows each of us to create our own narratives, embrace and promote our own realities, our own truths.

The saving grace of sports is that on any given afternoon, thousands of individuals with dramatically different realities and truths can be under one roof and cheer for one team or ridicule one opponent.

On Sunday, for example, 15,000 New York Knicks fans banded together to serenade Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks’ young star, with chants of “F— Trae Young.” These are 15,000 individuals who likely disagree to their core about the state of the United States, but they agreed to scream in unison about Young.

Young responded by hitting the game-winning shot.  

No conspiracy theories emerged, although Atlanta head coach Nate McMillan said “the NBA” favors the Knicks. One could concoct a harebrained alternate reality that Young really missed the shot. Alternate truths may fly outside the arena, but inside there is only one reality: the scoreboard.

Still, I wonder how much we all have really learned in the last 12 months of isolation, when sports were a wasteland and fans were largely sidelined.

Do Black lives matter any more now than they did a year ago, or do they only matter when hitting game-winning shots?

We’ll be able to tell a lot by how the sports world remembers George Floyd.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.