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Rittenhouse, McMichaels verdicts show limits of NBA progressivism 

It’s a mistake to believe that solely and uncritically working within a system of oppression will lead to greater equality and equity for Black people

The murder trial verdicts of Kyle Rittenhouse, and Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael, illustrate the vast spectrum of the American justice system as it pertains to white violence.

On one hand, in the case of Rittenhouse, it exposed a judicial system that not only encourages white vigilantism in the form of “stand your ground” laws and “castle doctrines,” but protects said white violence through self-defense laws that allow aggressors to fear for their lives even when they initiate conflicts. 

On the other, for the McMichaels and their neighbor, William Bryan, also found guilty on Nov. 24 of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, the trial shows what a functional judicial system can look like, but also how the scales of justice can be manipulated by those sworn to be impartial.

Through both trials — not to mention the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd — Black NBA players have been at the forefront of sports in both bringing attention to the cases and organizing behind the scenes to advance the causes of underserved and systemically oppressed Black people in this country.

The accomplishments of those players — a list that includes LeBron James, Chris Paul, Jaylen Brown, George Hill, Kyrie Irving, among others — cannot be overstated. After the murder of Floyd in May 2020, NBA players joined demonstrators in the streets to protest against police violence and turned the league’s return-to-play pandemic plan into a showcase of social justice initiatives, including the creation of a $300 million economic empowerment fund.

Months later, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer, the players used a protest without playing initiated by the Milwaukee Bucks to, among other things, advance voting access for Black communities. There are countless other examples of Black players using their time and resources to positively impact Black people, particularly over the last decade.

But the verdicts in the Rittenhouse and McMichaels cases also reveal that while professional athletes have the power and fame to do a lot of exceptional, progressive work against anti-Black racism, their influence is limited when it comes to matters of Black people and state-endorsed violence.

Nothing can be taken away from NBA players bringing attention to cases like these and how powerful athletes’ words and actions can be simply for those searching for a modicum of hope when yet another Black person is extrajudicially killed by the state, or, in the case of these two trials, those emboldened by the state.

And for their actions, we call them woke, both before and after it was appropriated into an insult, and hold them up as the most progressive men’s sports league in the world. We bestow various honors upon the players: opening speaking slot at The ESPYS, awards named after civil rights icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, comparisons with Muhammad Ali. We look to them, among others, as the spokespersons for an entire race of people when it comes to matters of systemic racism and police violence.

The era of player empowerment has led to tangible advances both for the players in their professional lives and for the communities they represent. But it’s a mistake to believe that solely and uncritically working within a system of oppression will lead to greater equality and equity for Black people.

Cases that involve the killing of Black people at the hands of police or white vigilantes tend to be presented by traditional news media as a litmus test on the fairness of the American justice system, whether or not justice is actually blind and will give every person of every color a fair shot in the eyes of judges and a jury of their peers.

But these cases are sometimes tried by lawyers who compare Black victims to slaves, heard by judges who hand out harsher sentences to Black people for committing similar crimes as white people, and decided by juries that, in the case of Black people, are not their peers: The lead prosecutor in the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s case, Linda Dunikoski, avoided the racial overtones of the shooting until the final day of arguments, likely to assuage the sensibilities of a jury where 11 of 12 were white Southerners.

Many will call the Rittenhouse verdict a miscarriage of justice or a failure of the judicial system, hanging on to the naive notion that the American justice system wasn’t created for this very purpose. They refuse to believe that a system created when Black people were considered property isn’t the very idea of systemic racism. The judicial system is beyond repair. Any institution corrupted and propped up by anti-Black racism cannot be reformed.

While these cases were about legal jargon such as “self-defense” and “citizen’s arrest,” they were really about the lengths the justice system can bend to absolve white people of violent crimes. Both Rittenhouse and Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, brought guns to fights they themselves instigated, and claimed to fear for their lives when the people they killed were unarmed.

The white vigilantism of Rittenhouse and the McMichaels is no aberration in how the criminal justice system is supposed to work. Nearly every American institution is built on the premise of white supremacy and Black subjugation. The convictions of Bryan and the McMichaels are not an example of justice or the judicial system prevailing. It was the exact opposite. It took more than two months for Georgia prosecutors to bring charges against the trio, and that was only after a confluence of extraordinary events:

  1. The first prosecutor recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael had worked in her office. Former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson was later indicted for directing law enforcement to not arrest Travis McMichael.
  2. The second prosecutor, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George E. Barnhill, recused himself because his son also worked in Johnson’s office. Before his recusal, Barnhill instructed police to not arrest the McMichaels due to Georgia’s self-defense, citizen’s arrest and stand your ground laws.
  3. The public release of video evidence of the encounter, filmed by Bryan, showing the trio stalking, intercepting and later killing Arbery in the middle of the road, leading to national exposure of the incident.

Not to mention: The case was as guaranteed a slam dunk as a James fast break. Had national attention not been given to this atrocity, the Glynn County judicial system would have allowed this case to not even reach trial, let alone charges against the defendants.

This is the system NBA players are fighting against. And no amount of symbolic gestures or awareness campaigns will lead to victory in this battle over racial equality and police reform.

There’s nothing wrong with current players believing they are standing on the shoulders of the civil rights icons who came before them. But the genesis of social justice work and progressivism is risking something in the name of the greater good. It’s possibly risking your career or your life. It’s standing on the front lines of standoffs with the state, risking assaults, tear-gassing and military-style showings of force.

The players and the league can make impassioned pleas for the humanity of Black people, as Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers did after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and donate hundreds of millions of dollars to causes that led to the betterment of Black Americans. But at the end of the day, they have limited power and resources to fix the racist ills of society.

They can donate millions, but change would require billions. They can make voting more accessible for Black communities, as James did in paying court fees for returning citizens and the players did in turning NBA arenas into voting centers, but they can’t prevent modern-day poll taxes on many Black Americans, illustrated by the nearly 400 restrictive voting laws Republicans have introduced since the 2020 presidential election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. 

And maybe we are the problem. We expect so much from professional athletes. We demand that they entertain us, fill the emotional voids in our hearts, act as role models for our children and, in their spare time, change the world. But at their core, basketball players’ jobs are to play basketball. They are more than equipped to talk about the inequalities in this country, but why place the additional burden of reliving their traumas as Black men?

Which is why some of us gave them a label — progressive — that they neither asked for nor seem to fully embrace.

While advocating for more funding for historically Black colleges and universities is a noble cause, progressivism demands free education. While meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about criminal justice reform can lead to incremental changes in the justice system, prison abolishment permanently ends a carceral state that disproportionately targets and imprisons Black people. Donating money to social justice-focused groups allows those organizations to provide much-needed services to underserved communities, but wealth redistribution through increased wages and taxation of the rich (a camp they fall in as professional athletes) directly improves poor housing, education, employment, air quality and infrastructure in predominantly Black communities.

And the only way to obtain those demands is to play the same card the players played after the police shooting of Blake in Wisconsin in August 2020: not playing the games.

Over two days, after the Bucks declined to play in a playoff game against the Orlando Magic, at least 17 games and matches across the NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and professional tennis were postponed due to athletes refusing to compete in solidarity with the Bucks. Out of that protest, the NBA players were able to secure tangible results: NBA arenas turned into voting centers for that November’s presidential election, the establishment of a social justice coalition, and the creation of advertising spots geared toward “promoting greater civic engagement.” And that was from a few playoff games having to be rescheduled.

The Montgomery bus boycott, which effectively ended racial segregation on public transportation, lasted for 13 months between 1955 and 1956. Disrupting league revenue, television contracts and downtown city economies would force the hands of lawmakers to act against police departments and judicial systems that disproportionately punish and enslave Black people. True progressivism takes a lot of time and risk, and it’s understandable to NBA players to not be willing to risk their careers and lives for the cause; they all saw what happened to former quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

NBA players are doing their best to make America a more equitable place for Black people, but until they are willing to put it all on the line, they shouldn’t be burdened with comforting us as we work through our collective problems.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"